In a previous post on zoning, I wrote that:
one reason why libertarianism is such a hard sell is that we have no political experience with any set of institutional arrangements other than the nanny/regulatory/welfare state. Accordingly, it is difficult for voters to imagine how a polity built on laissez faire principles would address the various social problems that may arise in a modern society.
I go on to argue there that for a variety of reasons, including the continuing viability of the tort of nuisance, “there is no reason to believe that the repeal of zoning would have disastrous consequences. In fact, there are at least as good grounds for supposing that there would be net benefits.” However, since zoning has been the norm from the 1950s onward, most of us are unfamiliar with any other approach. Houston is now the lone major holdout.
In my view this unfortunate ignorance regarding potential voluntary/free market solutions to social problems obstructs our political vision in many important areas of public policy. As described in Libertarian Philosophy in the Real World, these include protection against unsafe and dangerous products (chapter 5), “free banking” (chapter 6), poverty relief (chapter 7), public education (chapter 8), and health care (chapter 9). Accordingly, it may be useful to highlight one remaining and important private sector initiative that has not yet been regulated to death or displaced by the state. I am referring here to Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs modeled after it.
AA (founded in 1935) describes itself as an “an international fellowship of men and women who have had a drinking problem. It is nonprofessional, self-supporting, multiracial, apolitical, and available almost everywhere.” AA does not accept government subsidies or charge membership fees of any sort, and it costs nothing to attend its meetings. Participation is entirely voluntary.
This organization has a central office that accepts donations, disseminates information and literature about the program, and that’s about it. Everything else is highly decentralized, with scheduled meetings arranged and conducted by unpaid local volunteers. The organization has over two million members worldwide. They share experiences at their meetings, and mentor and encourage each other.
AA does not claim to be superior to other forms of treatment, and does not discourage other therapies, including supplemental medications. While this is a controversial claim, the Surgeon General of the United States reported in 2016 that, “Well-supported scientific evidence demonstrates the effectiveness of 12-step mutual aid groups focused on alcohol and 12-step facilitation interventions.” However, the best evidence of efficacy is the members’ willingness to attend meetings, mentor other participants, make donations, etc. As individualists, we should trust that competent adults generally know what is in their own best interests.
The 80-year track record of AA should remind us of the power of people to manage their own affairs and build vibrant communities without state “assistance,” as should the contributions of service organizations like Kiwanis, Lions, Rotary International, and the countless small-scale charitable foundations established by ordinary Americans. Unlike governmental programs, no one is compelled to join these organizations, or to support them financially.
As indicted above, I believe that voluntary solutions would emerge in almost every other area of unmet social need if the state would just get out of the way. But one thing seems certain: we should exhaust private sector options before we resort to heavy handed governmental coercion. Unfortunately, this principle was abandoned long ago.
 For a much more detailed critique of zoning ordinances, see Chapter 3 of my Libertarian Philosophy in the Real World.
 Some persons are forced to participate in 12-step programs by courts as part of a criminal sentence or as a condition of probation. Arguably, such steps may violate the defendant’s freedom of conscience because an inherent part of 12-step programs is the recognition that assistance must be sought from a “higher power.” However, AA does not initiate or encourage such orders, and so is not responsible for any injustice that arises thereby.
 The absence of a scientific consensus of the “effectiveness” of 12-step programs is not surprising. In addition to the typical challenges present in designing and conducting social science research (hurdles apparently so formidable that most of it can’t be replicated), there is the added complication of defining “effective” in a manner that is both meaningful and quantifiable. For example, if a successful outcome is defined in terms of strict abstinence for some specified period, this would treat important reductions in the severity of the drinking problem as a “failure.” The SG’s Report acknowledges this in commenting that “recovery goes beyond the remission of symptoms to include a positive change in the whole person.”