Shayne Wissler
“… to understand is, above all, to unify.” – Albert Camus

‘The State’ as a trigger word for anarchists

May 07 2013

I’ve never been nor will I ever be an anarchist, but I do try to engage with anarchists, for this reason: they profess to be interested in moral consistency. Because of this stated intent, they tend to draw a lot of people who actually are interested in moral consistency. (In this respect they are like the Objectivists, who profess to be advocates of reason.) By throwing up a banner and claiming to be for something can in fact draw a lot of worthwhile people who really are for it, particularly when the culture at large is firmly opposed to these things.

The other day I was talking to an anarchist, and we agreed on many specific points – individual rights should be respected, freedom of association, consent means consent – but when I mentioned the word “city-state”, it was like a trigger word for post-traumatic-stress-disorder, he got surprisingly angry, and at the mere word, haranguing me about how I shouldn’t use it to describe voluntary associations. He even went so far as to explicitly compare my use of the word “state” to using the word “nigger” (!).

As I explained to him, the term “city-state” as I mean it is simply a local, geographically-oriented association, rooted in contiguously owned land. The land must truly be owned, meaning that it’s being used. So these are relatively modest entities. The term “city-state” goes back to Ancient Greece, and Plato for example meant it to refer to a city that had no more than about 5000 people in it (or perhaps it was 5000 families). For more information about the historical meaning, see Copleston.

Because it is rooted in real property rights, a city-state is akin to a home. Just as your home should be your castle, and therefore within certain limits, you should be free to make up whatever rules you want for anyone who chooses to reside in it, the same holds for a city-state: if the individual owners of the adjoining property of the city-state want to, they may create laws in common, using contractual arrangements not unlike restrictive covenants or easements. A city-state is a sovereign, self-governed, local association. John Locke put it like this:

“MEN being, as has been said, by nature, all free, equal, and independent, no one can be put out of this estate, and subjected to the political power of another, without his own consent. The only way whereby any one divests himself of his natural liberty, and puts on the bonds of civil society, is by agreeing with other men to join and unite into a community for their comfortable, safe, and peaceable living one amongst another, in a secure enjoyment of their properties, and a greater security against any, that are not of it. This any number of men may do, because it injures not the freedom of the rest; they are left as they were in the liberty of the state of nature. When any number of men have so consented to make one community or government, they are thereby presently incorporated, and make one body politic, wherein the majority have a right to act and conclude the rest.”

When I pointed this idea of city-state out to him, the anarchist lengthily opined that the word “state” is essentially synonymous with “rights violating”, because, in his opinion, all past “states” had violated rights (and if some institution had not, he wouldn’t call it a “state” – clearly this is a circular, question-begging definition). This is like saying that we shouldn’t call a home a home if the owner violates the rights of people on his property. But the word “city-state” doesn’t refer to whether it is a just city-state; it merely refers to the local nature of governance involved with it.

In contrast to the city-state is the “nation-state”, or “empire.” As Copleston explained, the Ancient Greek city-state was ruined by the rise of Alexander the Great, whose empire destroyed the local sovereignty of Greek city-states. An empire is not rooted in legitimate land ownership, but in the ability to project destructive power into a region, making those who are local to the region subordinate to this power. This is obviously an evil idea, since it violates the consent and right of self-governance of the individuals in these localities. (The proper concept of government that projects power in a broad territory is of a voluntary federation – the simple fact is that city-states have the right to form them, in spite of the possible dangers of it being perverted into an empire; see my book for details and qualifications.)

I was surprised by this reaction to the mere word “state” – the word had been programmed into his mind to evoke unreasoning and extreme hatred. I am aware that popular YouTube anarchists use the word “state” as if it is a swear word. How is their repeated use not like using the word “nigger”? See George Carlin – evidently, if you are an anarchist, you can use the word state, but if you are not, then it’s as if you just said “nigger”.

This is just one example of why I think anarchism is a real problem for libertarianism. Just because politicians can be irrational and get away with it doesn’t mean you should try to mimic them – if you are not going to commit to being reasonable, you are not going to make any lasting difference in the world. Irrationality is a tool of evil and of the mob; it can’t be used constructively by people who want to think they stand for what’s right. You are not going to “end the state” and the “state” is not going to go away. It can change its form, but as we saw with the “collapse” of the USSR, it just becomes something else.

Anarchists live inside of an echo chamber of self-righteous delusions. A portion of their ideas are good – that portion that says that the government should not violate natural rights. But the other portion is patently false propaganda, and it’s propaganda that not only will never be bought into by the culture at large, but that interferes with the furtherance of their good ideas. If you approach people the right way, almost everyone is open to the idea that government should not violate natural rights. But if you bring up anarchism most people will write you off as crazy – and rightfully so.

Anarchists thus are sacrificing virtuous (and by the way, very American) ethical ideals to a ridiculously false political ideal: anarchism that flies in the face of natural rights, for we have the natural right to create associations such as city-states and federations – we have the right to form governments if we want to. And as we look around, we can observe that the vast majority of us want to. Furthermore, any objection by anarchists can be viewed as a potential threat to our right of self-governance.

The proper task is to explain natural rights to a larger part of humanity, and to convince them not to violate natural rights, and I can’t think of a better way to achieve the exact opposite than to 1) create propaganda that only anarchism is consistent with them, and then 2) brainwash the idealistic and energetic youth with this propaganda.

Anarchists who refuse to engage rationally about their ideology should not be surprised when others decide to interpret their irrational clinging to false beliefs as a sign of a psychological disorder. No one who has suffered the abuses of illegitimate authority can be blamed when they develop such disorders, but if you want to make a lasting difference you’ve got to get past them. Instead of letting your hatred govern your beliefs, you’ve got to grow up, take responsibility for your ideas, and acquire some intellectual self-discipline.