Book Review: Private Governance by Edward Stringham

I first heard about Ed Stringham’s book quite some time ago and I never really thought about buying it. Good quality works of history written by libertarians are few and far between. However, when I discovered that Private Governance had been published by the Oxford University Press my interest got the better of me.
Unless you happen to be an economist; free-market types don’t have a high profile in academia. This is a problem. Perhaps an academic publishing house putting out a ‘libertarian’ book is a sign of good things to come?

Private Governance moves at a relatively relaxed pace. Stringham goes through a few examples of how large institutions functioned adequately in the absence of government regulations; including the London Stock Exchange, San Francisco police force and PayPal. Stringham’s exploration of these complex organisations is welcome. It is easy to explain how a small scale transaction between a shopkeeper and a customer would work in a free-market but much harder to show how big organisations can operate with no formal legislation.

In the final section of the book, Stringham hits his stride. He focuses on how the application of free-market principles (what Stringham calls private governance) might help us in the present day. This includes an enjoyable chapter where Stringham discusses Hayek’s conception of law.

However, I do have a few gripes with Private Governance. Firstly in the beginning section of the book, Stringham’s tone and choice of language is often quite conversational. This makes the Private Governance easy to read but detracts from the academic appeal of his work.

Secondly, it is clear that this book was written by a libertarian, for other libertarians. Instead of developing his argument over the chapters and attacking the state from multiple angles. Stringham makes the exact same point in every single chapter- over and over again. This is music to the ears of people like me who are already convinced that the state is useless, but I can’t imagine he will win many converts.

Despite being a little repetitive Private Governance is an entertaining work of history that actually deserves to be called ‘history’. His message is clear and well argued. The next time I get into a discussion about politics at the pub and somebody says ‘that’s a great idea but it would never work in reality’. I will have plenty of examples to show them of how freedom can work in practice.

Title: Private Governance

Author: Edward Stringham
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Date: 2015

Rating: 4/ 5

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