The argument for liberty is not an argument against organization, which is one of the most powerful tools human reason can employ, but an argument against all exclusive, privileged, monopolistic organization, against the use of coercion to prevent others from doing better.— F.A. Hayek
It is evident, also, that neither true judgments nor true propositions can be contrary the one to the other. For whereas, when two propositions are true, a man may state both at the same time without inconsistency, contrary propositions are those which state contrary conditions, and contrary conditions cannot subsist at one and the same time in the same subject.— Aristotle
It is a curious thing that individuals starting from the same premises – a shared belief in the sovereignty of the individual, of the rightness of natural rights, of the banning of the initiation of physical force in human relations – can reach such strikingly contradictory conclusions as that of anarchism vs. minarchism. Indeed, it is embarrassing and discrediting to the libertarian movement that it could admit basic theories in such wild disagreement with one another. It would be tantamount to some astronomers claiming that the Earth goes around the Sun and others claiming that the Sun goes around the Earth, or some mathematicians claiming that two plus two equals four and others claiming that it’s eight. If we cannot, as advocates of individual liberty, paint a coherent vision of what it means for man to be free, then how can we expect the rest of humanity to bother with our ideas?
The difference is not merely one of degree. As the saying goes, one cannot be slightly pregnant. Neither is anarchism just a different degree of minarchism. These two ideas are by definition mutually exclusive.
What is the nature of the disagreement? It would be mistaken to presume that both groups or even members within each group have precisely the same conception of what I will designate here as “natural rights,” however, upon talking to members of each camp one discerns that this is not the source of the disagreement.
It may be argued by members of both camps that the opposite camp is under the influence of some sort of psychological derangement. An anarchist may argue, rightly in some cases, that the only reason the minarchist supports minarchy is that he is under some kind of insidious tribal peer pressure, that he is afraid to challenge the status quo and adopt the radical new truth of anarchism that allegedly deductively follows from natural rights premises. The minarchists may also argue, rightly in some cases, that due to a hatred taken to an illogical extreme, the anarchist is too narrowly focused on the admittedly evil actions that most governments have historically undertaken, that it is as if the anarchist’s response to a bully would be to argue for the bully to be executed rather than punished and reformed.
Or, it may be argued by members of both camps that each camp is under the influence of some kind of epistemological derangement. An anarchist might argue that the minarchist refuses to accept the law of non-contradiction, that his arguing for a monopoly on the use of force is a blatant contradiction to his own principles. I have to concede the anarchist’s position for many of the arguments for minarchism that I have seen. In fact, based on my reading I would have to say that the individualist anarchists have trounced the minarchists in debate, for precisely the reason that minarchists usually refuse to be consistent, particularly regarding the idea of “the consent of the governed.”
This essay concludes that individualist/market anarchism is in conflict with the ethical ideals of individual liberty. But in fact there are unlimited variations of anarchism even within this domain. How can I possibly address all these variants?
In fact I address no particular variant, but rather, two dimensions of variation. It is important to understand that I am not saying that “anarchism” as any particular anarchist understands it exactly matches either dimension. Rather, what each dimension reflects is my way of organizing particular anarchist propositions, according to what in my view constitutes the two basic ways in which anarchists err.
The first dimension I designate as “true” anarchism; the second as “semantic” anarchism.
By true anarchism, I mean a conception of anarchism that is consistent with how I would define anarchism. This is not to suggest that any particular anarchist agrees with my definition, although he probably agrees with at least some of the anarchist propositions I put under that head. By semantic anarchism I mean a conception that is anarchism in name only, which is to say that the so-called “anarchist” beliefs that I put under this head are not in fact anarchism as I think it should be defined.
The designations “true” and “semantic” do not imply mutually-exclusive viewpoints – a typical anarchist would probably have beliefs falling under either dimension.
To emphasize the preceding remarks: A common refrain among anarchists in response to the ideas in this essay is to proclaim “straw man!” and then refuse to address my particular points. Many seem to be under the delusion that all anarchists agree on everything. They do not. For example, while most market anarchists agree with me regarding possible constraints on secession, I know of at least one credentialed and popular market anarchist who does not. But even more importantly, this essay is not written from the personal perspective of every anarchist. It is completely unreasonable to expect me to adopt the terminology that I consider to be fallacious, or to try to address each and every one of the plethora of anarchist viewpoints one by one. If the shoe doesn’t fit with regard to some particular proposition that I proclaim to be “anarchist”, that’s fine, don’t wear it. There are plenty of other “shoes” in this essay.
“True” anarchism is the idea that there should be no government.
A true anarchist believes that there should be no government, anywhere, for if the anarchist allows that a given group can legitimately have government if that is what they want (so long as that government doesn’t violate the rights of those who do not want it) then the anarchist actually believes in government of precisely that kind. An anarchist who would admit that government can be legitimate under some circumstances would be like an atheist who thinks that God is created when someone decides to believe in him.
In other words, an anarchist must believe that in principle any government in the process of genesis ought to be destroyed, and that existing governments should be in some manner or other dismantled. For the anarchist, there is no room on the planet Earth for government. But many people do in fact want a government. Supposing that they have a right to create one, one would naturally suspect that there may be something inherently rights-violating in true anarchism.
Perhaps it is the awareness of such that has caused some anarchists to preemptively define government in a question-begging manner, as in “the institution that violates rights” or some such equivalent definition, thus non-objectively sneaking in an inherently negative evaluation of the institution of government into the definition and appearing to win the argument before it even begins. Some anarchists fallaciously appeal to history, pointing to the fact that all governments in the past have violated rights, and illegitimately concluding that therefore all governments as such, constructed on whatever principles, even principles that fundamentally differ from the principles used in past governments, must also violate rights. Cheap fallacies such as these should be dismissed by all reasonable debaters.
I propose the following as a reasonable definition of government: A government is an association of individuals that formally identifies, enforces, and adjudicates the laws governing a given jurisdiction.
As the anarchist might rightly point out, there is no basis in natural rights for one person to arbitrarily create laws and then assert them upon another; on the contrary, such a notion is both an outrageous insult and insufferable usurpation of consent. That is not the point at issue here.
As I have explained in For Individual Rights, we cannot begin to understand what a proper kind of government is without understanding the very sharp distinction between Natural Law and man-made law.
It is beyond the scope of this essay to provide a complete justification and identification of what I call “Natural Law,” but all who are in general agreement with basic shared premises of liberty outlined in the first paragraph of this essay will easily understand what I mean by it: in simple terms, Natural Law is the law that identifies particular individual rights and says that one must not violate them. To list one’s natural rights is, in my view, to define Natural Law; to identify what it means to not initiate force is, equivalently, also to define Natural Law.
On the other hand, “man-made law” is man-made rules, such as “Do not exceed 25MPH in a residential zone,” or “no keeping piles of junk in your front yard.” It should be clear to all who are for liberty that it is illegitimate to enforce such laws on someone without their consent. On the other hand, people should have the natural right to specify rules governing their own property, thus if you built the road, and if people driving on it had agreed to certain conditions in return for being permitted to drive on it, then by virtue of the natural right of consent, this man-made “law” may be justly enforced.
Thus we can identify two fundamentally different kinds of possible jurisdictions: the Natural Law jurisdiction and the man-made law jurisdiction.
The Natural Law jurisdiction applies everywhere, always. All anarchists, presumably, would agree that if a person is aggressing against another, then the anarchist has the natural right to come to the defense of the victim. He doesn’t necessarily have the obligation to do so, but he has the right, and there is no inherent limitation on this right as a function of locale (there may be practical limitations of course). Therefore, every person and every association of persons has a right (and arguably, it can be in their self-interest) to defend the natural rights of others beyond the bounds of their own property. If an association is formed on these premises, say, identifying a continental geographical jurisdiction and being founded upon a Constitution outlining this purpose, then it is perfectly legitimate, so long as it does not prevent others in undertaking the same. This fits the underlined definition of government I gave in the previous section. This is the first point that proves anarchism to be false on the grounds of Natural Law.
At this point the anarchist may object that a defining quality of governments is that they are monopolistic in their jurisdiction, that they do not allow competing governments. This is often historically true in some incomplete measure, but as I previously observed, it is fallacious to argue that because such and such has been true that it is necessarily always the way it must work. But it is also often not true. Governments have often not adhered to a strict notion of monopoly jurisdiction. For example, the United States routinely violates the alleged “sovereignty” of foreign governments, particularly on the grounds of human rights violations. NATO has various governing activities in various jurisdictions, in an overlapping manner. Different levels of government – Federal, State, City – represents overlapping government jurisdiction. International waters are explicitly recognized as regions of overlapping government jurisdiction. This has never implied that there is no government jurisdiction there, it implies that there is multi-government jurisdiction there. Most governments permit their own citizens to come to the defense of other citizens when natural rights are being violated – this is tantamount to not truly enforcing a monopoly jurisdiction. So the anarchist definition of government as necessarily being a geographic monopoly is quite unjustified.
In fact, the common concept of “national sovereignty” refers to nothing more than the attribute of strength. It is the ability to defend one’s arbitrary fiat assessment of a given situation using force that creates the perception of sovereignty, but that kind of sovereignty exists as perception only, it is a mirage and a myth compared to true sovereignty. Any anarchist “defense agency” with the same measure of strength as a given government would appear to have exactly the same “sovereignty” as that government. Might doesn’t make right, but might will have its way in the world. This is why political might, which is the aggregation of the might of many individuals, should be forged in a good comprehension of natural rights, including a proper concept of sovereignty. True sovereignty is rooted in the moral truth that an individual may take any action whatever so long as it doesn’t interfere with the equal right of others to engage in their own actions. Sovereignty over one’s property in land resides in legitimate ownership, not merely pointing and claiming vast swaths of land.
Even going by historic precedent the anarchist rebuttal falls, but it gets worse for the anarchist view when it comes to applying the prerogatives Natural Law grants us concerning jurisdictions of man-made law.
As was intimated above, jurisdictions of man-made laws are created by virtue of property rights – “my house, my rules” is the essential concept. The most relevant case is that of land ownership. When you justly acquire land then you have the prerogative to create, enforce, and adjudicate the “laws of the land,” so long as you do not violate Natural Law while doing so. For example, you can set an arbitrary speed limit, but if someone violates your law, you may not enact any arbitrary penalty, but rather only one that would be consistent with Natural Law: Natural Law would not permit execution as the penalty of violating the law, but it would permit (say) a contract term requiring either a fine to be paid or the speeder to be banned from your land. This in itself satisfies the above underlined definition of government, with the non-essential difference that your government is of a single individual, not an association.
What’s more, associations between individuals magnify this individual right to create a government of man-made jurisdiction into such proportions that the possible result (subject to the choices of participating individuals) looks similar to ordinary modern governments: one can create a homeowners association, complete with sidewalks and roads, rules, a court system, police, etc., all subject to the governance of rules held in common and subject to modification according to (say) democratic procedures. These “towns” can in principle grow into cities, and such “city-states” can combine with others to patrol the wild lands in between them to secure Natural Law rule there, creating a “State” and “Federal” government. They can also enter treaties with each other to establish rules held in common (such as copyright laws), and if they end up in a disagreement, can appeal to the “State” or “Federal” level for dispute resolution. Note that this conception resembles the original makeup of the United States, with the idea of variable State jurisdictions and laws, and the Federal government supporting the basic security and harmony of the States.
At this point the anarchist might object that at some level this construction violates the right of the individual to secede, or if it does not, then would inevitably result in dissolution. Regarding the latter, even if secession were allowed at all levels (and depending on the choices of the constituents it certainly may be), that does not therefore argue that dissolution would be the overall result. Obviously such an outcome is a choice and it’d be made based on circumstantial value-judgments. This is similar to the case of married people. That the married can get divorced does not argue that they necessarily will. Further, sometimes they do and then get re-married; such an argument does not result in the belief that consensual marriage is a myth. (One might try to argue that an association of two people is inherently more stable than an association of millions, however, stability depends on the nature of the association. Given its intricate and intimate interdependency, marriage would obviously be far more unstable with more than two people, but an association tasked with the goal of maintaining sensible ideas of justice can be large and stable if it stays true to a proper purpose).
The foregoing is a sufficient rebuttal to the notion that the possibility of secession “disproves” the possibility of consensual government, but there is another fact: secession may not actually be as simple as claiming “my land, my rules, I’m going to change them from what I had agreed to when I joined this community.”
For example, suppose you and a partner agreed to build a home that spanned the land both you and he owned. It would probably not make any sense to form a contract that allowed both of you to “secede” by each taking your land back, because that would destroy the home. Rather, you would probably agree that if you came to irreconcilable differences, that the home would be sold and you would split the proceeds of the sale. Now, this is not a rigid thing, perhaps it would be in your best interests to demolish the home, and if so then you’d put that into the initial contract.
Likewise, suppose one creates a homeowners association with others, which in exchange for monthly fee or “tax” (say), provides roads, sidewalks, electricity, water, and sewer services, and further, requires that every homeowner provide reasonable upkeep for his home, and hold to certain community rules, for example, that no one may own a dangerous breed of dog, or store dangerous explosives in their garage. A key value of such an association is to, on some level, choose the kind of neighbors and community you want. Another key value is the jointly-created infrastructure that spans across everyone’s property. In this context, it is both necessary and legitimate to ban secession, instead requiring that a dissenting homeowner must sell his property to someone who will follow the man-made laws that were originally consented to.
The persistent anarchist might at this point argue that banning secession is not legitimate, that the individual member of the homeowners association, who had agreed to follow various rules, could anarchically flout them if that’s what he wants. Consider what this would mean. If a road or sewer or other utility line ran across his property, the anarchist thinks he would have a right to destroy it or ban others from using it. If the rules said he had to keep his yard in good shape he would now think he could store all kinds of junk in his front yard. Are there limitations on what he might do? Since the anarchist has thrown the community rules out the window, everything would have to be argued from first principles. So if, say, the community rules had a specific noise ordinance that objectively specified when and how much noise was tolerable, then the anarchist would be able to wrangle in endless arguments about just how much noise constitutes an objective violation of rights.
The reason why the anarchist is wrong is that if you join a homeowners association, then you do not in fact own your property outright. You in fact jointly own it with the surrounding community, with you having certain rights of enjoyment of your property, and the surrounding community having other rights. The only way for the anarchist to legitimately secede is to sell his home and go someplace else.
Here are some additional arguments against true anarchism from my book, For Individual Rights:
Two objections might be raised by some anarchists; first, that it is illegitimate to enforce Natural Law everywhere, because not everyone necessarily consents to its jurisdiction; second, that someone’s definition of Natural Law might not match someone else’s definition.
The first objection is absurd on its face: suppose an anarchist living in the wilderness enters your city, kidnaps one of your children, flees into the wilderness, and then complains when your police force rescues your child (which by the Law of Conservation of Rights is as if you yourself rescued your child). He then complains that he doesn’t consent to your police having jurisdiction. By even using the word “consent,” he implicitly accepts Natural Law, and all the arguments I have given in Chapter 2 apply to him, particularly the argument regarding justice, which entitles the police to recover the child and extract justice from the kidnapper. Clearly, to make the argument that your Natural Law jurisdiction does not apply to him is mere sophistry aimed at getting away with crimes against Natural Law.
The answer to the first objection underscores the crucial need for people to come to a common view of Natural Law, because certainly, if people substantially disagree about the meaning of Natural Law, then war of some kind will ensue. There is no possible means of achieving “peace on Earth, good will toward men” unless men can agree about what acts are rights and what acts are crimes. As history has repeatedly demonstrated, religion is certainly not the answer here, as people will always pursue different religions (or no religion), and thus persistently disagree regarding their respective moral viewpoints. But history also demonstrates that people, even of differing religions, can agree on subjects like math and science, and come to a consensus on a great many things. This is why it is essential to base the laws of human relations on Reason, just as these other areas of broad human agreement are. Those who are committed to Reason, at least in the sphere of human relations, are on the path to peace and prosperity; those who are not are inherently dedicated to war and suffering.
So what is the answer to the anarchist’s second objection? If we desire peace and prosperity, there is no other route to it than discovering the rational meaning of Natural Law, and then convincing one’s fellow-man of it. And just as Reason itself is self-correcting, a populace generally dedicated to peace and prosperity and Natural Law will ultimately correct those bad elements of society who prefer irrationality and the antithesis of Natural Law. And just what is this antithesis, this pursuit of one’s own law in preference to the law that Reason would dictate? Anarchy. Even those politicians who pursue unjustifiable laws are, in essence, anarchists: they wish no law but that which their own whims dictate. The only real difference between a dictator and an anarchist is how many people he has duped into following his whims; the dictator has duped many, the anarchist, only himself. The dictator exerts his whims on others through the color of law; the true anarchist merely wishes he could do so.
The foregoing is not an argument that everything that government does is permitted. It is not an argument that existing governments have been constructed on proper principles. It is an argument that they could in principle be reformed such that they are formed on such principles. It is an argument that government may exist if that’s what consenting people want, and that if this group of consenting people arranged to create a rights-respecting government, then it is perfectly legitimate.
The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper names.— Chinese Proverb
The most difficult and often final point one reaches in debating anarchists is what some tend to flippantly dismiss as “mere semantics.” The reason it seems difficult is precisely in the flippant dismissal, but by making this remark they are essentially walking off the field of debate, and technically speaking, that means they’ve implicitly admitted defeat while obstinately refusing to revise their views. Contrary to their attitude about the meaning of words, the fact that this is the subject they are the least interested in discussing with rigor suggests that this is the one that is near to the root of a serious evasion on their part, for if the subject really were as trivial as their attitude suggests, then it would be equally trivial to make a powerful argument.
It is not uncommon when debating anarchists to hear that they are not against self-government or the consensually arrived at kinds of government that I’ve suggested above, but that they are against “The State.” For them, anarchism doesn’t mean what every dictionary says it does, it means that this kind of government is okay but that kind of government is not. And when it is pointed out that they in fact advocate government of a given kind, not anarchism, they might say that the dictionary is “ahistorical” or “propaganda.” Is this pure silliness or is there merit in their view?
Since Statists abound it is easy to find at least some merit.
A Statist is one who believes that the State is imbued with magical rights that transcend and supersede the natural rights of the individual. It is to them not a mere human organization constrained by the same Natural Law that constrains every individual, but one that it is a god to bow down to and worship. In order to imbue the the god-like qualities into The State, a magical ritual incantation is performed by those inclined to idol-worship, calling upon such fantastic other-worldly ideas as as “Divine Right of Kings” or “Mandate of Heaven” or “Manifest Destiny” or “Will of the People.” Once imbued with this imaginary magical quality, The State proceeds to take its god-like action, by destroying this or that race, squashing this or that yearning for self-governance, or such other megalomaniacal things that those wielding the power of The State desire. In the corrupted mentality of the idol-worshiper, The State thus becomes an entity unto itself, commanding worship and obedience, doling out punishments and rewards. Its devout and deluded followers then permit it to behave literally as if it were a God on Earth, when really it is merely a bunch of men, some with various degrees of psychological derangements, acting in a variety of ways, some of their actions good, and some of their actions evil.
This kind of anarchism shares similarities with atheism. It is the rejection of one particular kind of false god – The State. And here lies at least some virtue in anarchism.
But one should not be defined by what one rejects. Some atheists take upon the designation as if it were their identity. But they also say that atheism is the natural, normal state. They point out that a newborn baby doesn’t believe in God since he doesn’t believe in anything yet. From the atheist point of view, theism is merely a bogus story a bunch of humans made up. So why then should the atheist identify himself as being against some random story? Why is he not also an asantaclausist or an atoothfairyist? One shouldn’t identify with what one is against, one should identify with what one is for. To designate oneself as “atheist” is to implicitly believe that “whatever a mass of deluded people believe is important, and I’m going to identify myself relative to that.” A person whose central identification is “atheist” is essentially saying “theism is very important to me, so important that I need theists in order to mark where I stand in the world.” An anarchist who is merely reacting to the “State as God” concept is making exactly the same mistake.
The sensible anarchist recognizes that in dispensing with The State, one cannot dispense with everything The State traditionally does. Some anarchists even categorize and name these things “government,” claiming to be anti-State but not anti-government. Other anarchists embrace some of these things but continue to despise even the word “government.” Is any of this legitimate? Is it coherent to be for “self-government” but also to call oneself an anarchist? To answer these questions we need to consider the facts referred to by the words – we need to consider the semantics.
The purpose of a word is to signify a concept, which itself isolates and integrates certain facts. In creating a concept, we implicitly are also saying “this set of facts is important to be able to mentally isolate” and “these set of facts go together.” Anything contrary to this purpose indicates an improper concept.
Traditionally the concept of anarchy means the lack of a formal system of law, i.e. no government (in the traditional meaning of government). It is not a pejorative term, it merely describes the condition in which one might find oneself if (say) stranded with some others on an island. One might similarly coin a word “a-car-y” to describe the lack of their possession of cars. No implication is given in this meaning of the words that they should be forced to make cars or to make government, nor is there an implication that something evil is afoot simply because a formal system has not yet been created. (Another sense of the word “anarchy” means “chaos,” but that is not the sense of the word that is relevant here.) In the traditional view, there can be degrees of anarchy and government: a people might naturally and slowly create more formalized rules over time, but at each point the thing being referred to by “government” is the formal system. Even if it exists to a very tiny degree socially, it still exists as a distinct attribute of a given society – the formal system of law.
In the semantic anarchist view, the word anarchy can mean precisely the condition described by the traditional usage of the word anarchy (“no government”), and it can mean the condition where the islanders have a formal system of laws and implementation that they have consensually agreed to follow.
Curious questions emerge from the semantic anarchist definitions. If consent is violated by an “anarchist defense agency,” then they do not call this anarchy anymore, they call it government. This last fact raises the obvious question about just how much consent must be violated in order for the formerly anarchic system to magically transform into government. Does it instantaneously switch upon the first violation of consent? If the government makes restitution does it magically switch back to being anarchy again? Or maybe it gets transformed by a declaration of sovereignty? If so, then what if the formerly “anarchic system of law” that had existed (say) for a hundred years without competing governments adds a law prohibiting them? Is it now instantaneously transformed from being anarchy to being government even though by all appearances everything seems the same as it was the day before the law? These questions underscore an inherent instability in the semantic anarchist’s concept of anarchy which is caused by combining facts that belong in opposite categories.
And what about those facts isolated by the traditional concept of anarchy? Why does the anarchist implicitly insist that it is unimportant to identify a “state of nature” condition where men have not yet created a formal system whereby one can know whether or not one’s actions will result in being left free to pursue further action, or whether one’s action will result in being attacked and thrown into jail?
These questions are of course rhetorical; they demonstrate in themselves that the semantic anarchist’s definitions are fatally flawed.
Let us now more deeply test the definition of government I proposed earlier: “A government is an association of individuals that formally identifies, enforces, and adjudicates the laws governing a given jurisdiction.”
Consider a fantasy scenario where one rogue villain with a magical power to kill everyone with his mind emerges. He then identifies, enforces, and adjudicates “laws” he makes up for the whole planet to obey. Is this a government? How one answers depends on one’s definition of a single term: “formally.” If one decides that the word “formally” means “following any arbitrary method I please,” then one will answer that this is indeed a government. If one defines “formally” to mean “following a rational method,” then one will answer that this is not government at all, that there is no actual formal rule of law, but rather the lawless rule of a dictator with extreme powers, that he doesn’t actually rationally determine anything, he just makes it up as he goes along according to his whims.
If one decides that there is no such thing as reason, that rationality is a myth, then one will say that an arbitrary method is the only possible method, that if you are going to have a government, then it is by definition going to be an arbitrary dictatorship, whether of one or of some or of all (the last being known as “democracy”). It is therefore clear that to reject reason is to thereby reject the concept of anything possibly being rational, including government, and therefore to embrace either anarchy or dictatorship of one or some or all. This explains why some people are anarchists: given their view of reason, Man is not to be trusted with the aggregated political power that government represents, so in their view it’s preferable to smash this man-made construct to pieces and force every man to fend for himself.
Some anarchists argue that my definition of government is essentially their definition of anarchy, that history demonstrates conclusively that the prevailing method governments used is not rational at all, and it is precisely a rational approach to law that they themselves advocate. There is indeed some truth in this argument. Governments have historically largely ignored reason. The regime of legal positivism is by itself proof of this and there are many more examples as well. Further, many anarchists have rational, sensible ideas of natural rights, and I would indeed agree without qualification to many of their analyses of the acts of government. To some extent, they want what I want, they just do not want to call it “government”; according to them, government is by definition not formal in the sense of being based upon rational methodology.
But even if the anarchist view that governments violate rule of rational law were true in all instances of governmental action, consider the extent to which modern Western governments try to make it appear otherwise. I think the anarchists would agree that they do indeed try to appear to the populace as being governed by rational methods, they try to appear such that they aren’t in fact based on mere whims or arbitrary fiat, i.e., that their actions are legitimate. In other words, the government is creating this appearance in order to cater to a certain expectation by the populace that in some terms “a government is supposed to do things the right way for the right reasons.” This is what people expect of government.
Speaking from a purely tactical perspective, why would the anarchist not want to leverage the populace’s own conceptual understanding of what a government really ought to be doing? Rather than obliterating this highly virtuous expectation that things should be done the right way for the right reasons by government, why not encourage and strengthen this very healthy spirit of the rule of rational law, helping them see where government doesn’t follow a proper conception of the rule of law and advocating for positive change? Indeed, note the harm caused from a population that is apathetic about what government is doing. Anarchism doesn’t counter this apathy, it breeds it.
Furthermore, from a logical perspective it makes no sense to go against the common cultural vocabulary. No one thinks that modern governments are perfect or that past governments have even been reasonable. What reasonable person agrees with monarchy or theocracy that so recently ruled most human beings? What reasonable person agrees with communism and fascism that to some extent still rules them? But most do think at root that government is supposed to be the system that defends their rights. If you think the current government is pretending to be such a system but isn’t, or needs to be reformed in order to meet rational expectations then make your case. It is counter-productive and illogical to anarchically flout commonly accepted terminology.
Historically, the word “government” has always referred to the entity that enforces the “law of the land,” whatever that law may be. In different times this law of the land has been many things: rule by tribal chief, rule by dictator, rule by monarch, rule by religion, rule by democracy, rule by representative, etc. At no point when they were changing out one “law of the land” for another did anyone throw the word “government” into the trash bin, or when they did, they were either lying or deluded. So it goes against all historic precedent for someone to advocate for a kind of law of the land, and then not to call the system that implements it a government of precisely the kind that institutes that law. In our case, what we want is a rule of law consistently grounded in Natural Law, and this implies a form of government consistently based on Natural Law.
A consequence of anarchist conceptual and semantic chicanery is that a wedge is driven into the anarchist subconscious sundering his own moral principles from society, and thereby sundering his moral principles from being able to cause positive change. For some anarchists, such sundering can in principle result in even more heinous existential damage when, due to political tactics perverted by a misplaced hatred of government as such, he directs his energies against the wrong targets. For other anarchists, a smoldering contempt for government causes alienation between himself and society, or causes the anarchist to verbally harass random government officials, resulting in the needless trouble for himself while accomplishing nothing.
Regardless of how oppressive a government is, to a large degree it is merely the political expression of the values held in common by the majority, or if not the majority, by a large and united fraction. For example, in America as in every other part of the world, the value of nationalism is widely believed, if not explicitly then implicitly. This leads to the Federal Government extending its authority beyond what is authorized by its own Constitution. This would not be possible if most people did not agree in principle with the idea that the Federal Government can contradict the spirit of the Tenth Amendment, thus going beyond Natural Law and decreeing a wide variety of man-made edicts upon everyone without their actual consent. The fact is, to the extent that the government behaves criminally, such criminality is mostly sanctioned by the American people. So the root problem here is clear enough: bad ideas held by the populace in general leads to government criminality.
But the anarchist tends to ignore this obvious fact and blame the government instead. Incessant in anarchist propaganda is the inaccurate projection that it’s government vs. the people. Clearly, the government needs close monitoring, and any unjust acts should be highlighted. That anarchists can be counted on to energetically do this is of some value, but for example, why primarily blame the police for enforcing the laws sanctioned by politicians, the public, and backed by the judiciary? Even police brutality is not primarily a police problem, the problem is what happens when citizen vs. police cases are taken into court or into the court of public opinion. It is not primarily the police one should be angry with when police are not held accountable by the public and by the judiciary, nor should one be primarily angry with the judiciary when they in turn are not held accountable by the public.
Supposing the object of misplaced anarchist hatred were to be eradicated overnight by some means, then like a weed cut instead of pulled up by the root, it would just grow back. The values held in common by the people would cause government to re-emerge overnight, and quite probably in an even more virulent form given the fact that the American traditions instilled in government would have been totally wiped out. As history has demonstrated, revolution is not always a good thing, it depends on the underlying values of the people.
The reason why government reflects the values of the people is that government is those people who consent. A government is the concrete manifestation of the actions of those who consent to it – these actions are the substance of government. It is not an entity separate from those consenting people, it is the sum total of the actions of all the individuals who in some measure consent.
It is a common mistake to reify government, to regard it as an entity that exists separate from particular individuals and their actions. Statists make this mistake when they absolve government of any moral responsibility for its actions. They pretend that the actions of government and the actions of the people that it consists of are separate, that the government is a kind of god that can do whatever it wants with impunity. Anarchists make the same mistake, but instead of viewing government as a god they view it as a demon. But there is no god and there is no demon, there is just your neighbor, and his neighbor, and all the people whose actions get summed up into the totality of actions of government.
If you want to fight evil in the world, then the only just way to do it is to address the particular evil acts, while doing one’s best to leave the good acts alone. When the government taxes your neighbor, he may very well consent to this, and thus this particular act of taxing is not evil. He may even think the government should collect more tax. The results of the tax are not all evil either. The police and courts and military often perform rights-defending functions. The root evil isn’t the man-made laws government implements per se, it’s that these laws are foisted upon those who do not in fact consent to them. To measure the evil, you have to account for the fact that most people fully consent to the actions that you perceive as evil, and therefore, that relative to them there is no evil done to them, but rather, to some degree by them. Since they are by far the majority your only option is to convince them to cease and desist, to leave you some spot on earth to carry out your business independent of their man-made laws.
There never yet was any truth or any principle so irresistibly obvious that all men believed it at once. Time and reason must cooperate with each other to the final establishment of any principle; and therefore those who may happen to be first convinced have not a right to persecute others, on whom conviction operates more slowly. The moral principle of revolutions is to instruct, not to destroy.— Thomas Paine
It does not require a majority to prevail, but rather an irate, tireless minority keen to set brush fires in people’s minds…— Diane Ackerman paraphrasing Samuel Adams
Enlighten the people, generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like spirits at the dawn of day.— Thomas Jefferson
What do we mean by the Revolution? The war? That was no part of the revolution; it was only an effect and consequence of it. The revolution was in the minds of the people, and this was effected from 1760 - 1775, in the course of fifteen years, before a drop of blood was shed at Lexington.— John Adams
The statement “life isn’t fair” is usually an expression of a vile numbness to injustice, but in the case of the misplaced justice-seeking actions of some anarchists, it is perhaps a reasonable retort. For at least the last several thousand years, individuals have incessantly had to put up with insane injustices from the actions of the majority. It is definitely not fair that we who understand moral principle must be burdened with dealing with those who don’t. But it’s a plain fact that people believe in various injustices, and the only way to deal with it is rationally. In the case of injustice in government, the only rational way to deal with it is to educate the populace about their own natural rights. Instead of incessantly focusing on the unfairness, anarchists should spend some time appreciating the fact that unlike so many throughout human history, they enjoy (for the most part) First Amendment rights. Exercise them often in educating our fellow man about his own natural rights.
Supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.
We can form a single united body, while the enemy must split up into fractions. Hence there will be a whole pitted against separate parts of a whole, which means that we shall be many to the enemy’s few.— Sun Tzu
The question of anarchism vs. government is of extreme importance, for if anarchism is correct, then government is in principle evil, can therefore only do evil, and therefore any action to reform it is futile. But if government can be good and valid under certain circumstances, then it is imperative to identify these precisely and to take action to reform government.
The argument in this essay demonstrates that an association consistent with a reasonable definition of government is not only consistent with natural individual rights, but also potentially a highly valuable one for people to create. An individualist anarchist who actually believes in the Rights of Man must therefore respect all of man’s rights, including his right to form associations such as governments. It is only when governments violate rights that they should be argued against, and only to the extent that they actually do violate rights.
To be consistent, an anarchist must either reject anarchy or reject the individual right to form government, and if he chooses the latter, then notwithstanding his protestations to the contrary, thus reveal himself as not in actuality being a true defender of Man’s Rights.
To be inconsistent is to waste precious intellectual energy in chasing a fantasy. To quote Roy Childs, a prominent individualist anarchist who later recanted, anarchism is “a fantasy masquerading as an ideology” that “has led too many libertarians away from reality, and, indeed, set them on a collision course with it.”
The anarchist who truly believes in individual rights must come to realize that it is not government as such that is his enemy, but rather, an improper idea of what government can legitimately do. Anarchism, in a single stroke, both addresses one’s precious energy to the actual enemy’s strongest point – the legitimacy of government in principle – and in that same act, dissolves the power to fight it by teaching one to shun organized political action.
In the following pages I address further issues I do not consider to logically belong in the main body of this essay.
[The State is] “a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.”— Max Weber (1864-1920)
An anarchist is a statist who has been mugged by reality.— Gary Chartier
This definition of government is central to both the Statist view and the anarchist view of government. For reasons argued in the main body of this essay, the definition is quite wrong. It is a in fact a fantasy that has never existed and will not ever exist except in the minds of Statists and anarchists. For Statists, it is a mythological ideal they strive for while never reaching anything but a pile of corpses. For persistent anarchists, it is a straw man view of government that is used as justification of their own fervently-held views. Why is it the anarchist god? Because in effect, this definition of government created them, and because they accept this idea of government as if it were one of the Ten Commandments. For similar reasons to why a cynic is a disillusioned idealist, an anarchist is a disillusioned Statist. He started out worshiping the State as God, and continues to worship the concept of State as God in order to continue being an anarchist.
In fact, this definition of government has not only never existed in reality but is also not the proper historical conception. If any conception of government should serve as a historical “gold-standard,” it should not be the definition of Max Weber, who accomplished nothing but aiding and abetting the corruption of a proper concept of government and the consequent sharply escalating tyranny coincident with his political works, but rather, the proper concept was identified by John Locke, whose work paved the way toward The Declaration of Independence and a more civilized form of government.
In the following excerpt of Locke’s The Second Treatise Of Government, note the very close similarity of the section I have underlined to the ideas underlying this essay:
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, which is done 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.— John Locke (1632-1704)
Rather than reclaiming this proper conception of government and expanding and strengthening the case for a moral form of government, the persistent anarchist insists on the perverted Weberian definition, sometimes going so far as to accuse Locke’s view here as being “anarchist.”
What is accomplished by destroying the proper definition of government as identified by Locke? Precisely the opposite of the positive effect that Locke had on the original American form of government. What they accomplish is to open the floodgates of tyranny.
Anarchists enjoy using history to buttress this or that partisan position they wish to advocate, but the history they should carefully consider is the historical fact that anarchism has never been very popular. Further, it will never be popular either, because it is a Frankensteinian perversion of history and of vocabulary, and on some level most normal people sense this and no amount of anarchist propaganda is ever going to alter this fact.
The most any anarchist can achieve is to distract the young and the foolish with nonsense. And regarding the former, some of these youth, who see clearly the moral truth that violating consent is logically and morally unjustified, are the cream of the moral crop. These are the best of the best in moral terms. They are precisely the ones that we need to help lead the way to a better future. And yet anarchism wastes their precious youthful energy pursuing a hopeless “fantasy masquerading as an ideology” (to again quote from anarchist Roy Childs recantation).
Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.— Lord Acton
When the persistent anarchist has completely run out of arguments, he will resort to what I call the “anarchist punt,” which is type of appeal to emotion fallacy. Like any fallacy this fallacy has a potentially unlimited number of forms:
These “arguments” boil down to one thing: if you create government, you might be destroyed by it. Now, this “argument” also applies a great many highly valuable things. For example, if you create a tractor, you might fall off and it might run you over. If you drive a car, you might get into an accident. If you create a dam, it might break and drown thousands of people. If you launch a space shuttle, it might explode.
It should be clear that these kinds of arguments literally amount to nothing more than fear-mongering. There is absolutely no logic here at all, just the image of a machine powerful enough to destroy, that might destroy you. It’s a fear-mongering “argument” that there might be a bogeyman under your bed, and that’s all.
But as with many anarchist positions this one also has an element of truth in it. The commonly believed Weberian idea of government (the mythological notion that a government can and should attain and maintain a monopoly on force) drives people to press the government to take insane and megalomaniacal action in the course of addressing real and perceived problems. In the minds of people who have bought in to this fantasy view of government, every new crisis becomes not merely an excuse for further encroachment of government upon individual rights, but even more insidiously, it becomes perceived evidence of where this monopoly of force does not exist and therefore, where (in their own deluded opinion) it must be extended. But since the end they pursue is a fantasy, they will never actually attain the total control over everything. In the end, if they are allowed to continue, they will only achieve the total destruction of the economy and the subtle and overt violation of the individual rights of countless innocents, even to the extent of actually causing their deaths. It is a very dangerous myth indeed.
The preceding is of course not an argument against government as such, it is only an argument against pursuing the unattainable Weberian ideal of government. But one doesn’t fight a perverted ideal by accepting it as a starting point. This Weberian notion should never have existed in the first place and should be cast aside, and in its place should be a rational conception of government, one that is a refined version of ideal of government John Locke identified and that led to the greatest human liberty and prosperity ever attained: the birth of the American form of government. This form is imperfect but perfectible, and a first step in this process is to eradicate the Weberian aspects that have insidiously crept in as time has passed, not to disown the entire enterprise.
It is said that fear is the mind-killer, but a healthy fear is a good thing. The actual mind-killer is permitting one’s fear to eradicate the discipline of rational thought. A logically undisciplined mind that is easily manipulated by fear-mongering is an even greater enemy than government injustice, for it leads to flailing about with irrational thoughts and actions instead of rationally restraining government. Flailing about in fear with incoherent fear-mongering and thus advocating and pursuing absurdities will not save anyone from injustice; on the contrary, it will only further encourage injustice.
It is a profoundly important truth that one should be extremely vigilant about the powers collected by government (as one should be respectful of any machine that might harm or kill). As the sometimes tyrannical George Washington wisely warned:
Government is not reason, it is not eloquence, it is force; like fire, a troublesome servant and a fearful master. Never for a moment should it be left to irresponsible action.
This is the truth that should occupy that place in the anarchist’s mind that is instead occupied by fear.
The proposal of any new law or regulation of commerce which comes from [businessmen], ought always to be listened to with great precaution, and ought never to be adopted til after having been long and carefully examined, not only with the most scrupulous, but with the most suspicious attention. It comes from an order of men, whose interest is never exactly the same with that of the public, who have generally an interest to deceive and even to oppress the public, and who accordingly have, upon many occasions, both deceived and oppressed it.— Adam Smith
Consider Wikipedia’s summary of anarcho-capitalism: “In an anarcho-capitalist society, law enforcement, courts, and all other security services would be provided by voluntarily-funded competitors such as private defense agencies rather than through taxation, and money would be privately and competitively provided in an open market.”
To some extent, this definition is not describing some new system of government, but an aspect of our already existing system. For example, one is already able to contract with arbitration agencies and private security firms for various purposes (there are presently unjustified limitations that would be removed if we had perfect Natural Law governance). But underlying these agencies now is a governing rule of law. Anarcho-capitalism replaces this underlying system, not with a Natural Law system of governance, but with no system but these agencies, which compete for profit in the “free” market. Traditional governments based on mutually-exclusive geographic jurisdictions are prohibited.
As has already been demonstrated, one has a right to join with others to create a city-state with a traditional form of government, where one’s jurisdiction may not be breached by any other agency or government unless there has been some equivalent of probable cause that one’s city-state has violated the natural rights of someone and is not taking the proper steps to ameliorate. This is a government of consent, with just as much “monopoly on force” as any existing government, but it is not anarcho-capitalism (as has been discussed previously, perfect, total monopolies of force are a myth; no real government has this or has ever had this).
Thus, there are morally proper forms of government that are not anarcho-capitalism, so to the extent that anarcho-capitalism is put forward as the “right” solution, one that could override the rights of a given city-state and forcibly overthrow their non-anarcho-capitalist government, anarcho-capitalism is really just a variant of totalitarianism (it would be the capitalist variant of Marxism, which was also put forward as allegedly advocating for anarchism but ended up yielding totalitarianism instead).
To the extent that anarcho-capitalism is not totalitarianism, it is merely one of the forms a given city-state’s inhabitants might voluntarily adopt as their form of government; it is not a fundamental form. Further, it is dubious to claim that a majority of people would voluntarily submit to a system of government based on agencies that have the power to enforce their claims of justice and that are also seeking to maximize their profits. Indeed, to the extent that profit-seeking has shown its face in the halls of government, corruption has often been associated with it.
You’re not arguing about anarchism, you’ve just set up a straw man and knocked it over. You are totally misrepresenting what anarchism is about, and I have a pile of quotes from various anarchist intellectuals to prove it.— Anonymous
Given my qualifications at the very start of this essay in the Methodology section, this response is rather surprising but common enough that it would seem to require some answer.
The complaint is that I have attached a meaning to the word “anarchism” that the particular anarchist in question doesn’t agree with. The complaint is not followed by any argument about why I should accept his definition beyond the fact that someone or other said that anarchism meant such and such. This is argument from authority and can be logically dismissed. Further, it is question-begging, because the whole purpose of this essay is to argue that anarchism should mean one thing and government should mean another. If the anarchist is merely complaining that I didn’t accept his meaning without taking up my particular arguments for why anarchism should mean what I say it should, then he’s begging the question at issue. So contrary to the anarchist retort that I’m engaging in a straw man fallacy, he is in fact engaging in a two-fold fallacy.
There are two further peculiar things about this particular criticism. First, if the anarchist complains that I don’t accept his definition, then must I follow this precedent for each and every anarchist? Must I accept all their varying ideas and definitions (they do indeed vary and they argue about their respective differences amongst each other)? If so, then this essay would be at least a hundred times longer and I would have to survey the entire range of anarchists and represent each of their different viewpoints here. If I followed the anarchist’s desired approach then this essay would be impossible. Perhaps that’s why he wants me to pursue this plan.
But even more peculiar is the authoritarian nature of the anarchist’s request. Evidently I’m not allowed to mean what I mean by anarchism, and he’s not going to give me any reasons why I should not mean what I mean, it’s just his say so, or the say so of this or that authority he wants to refer to. I’m to fall in line and swallow his definitions whole and without any argument given whatsoever. This kind of authoritarianism would seem to fly in the face of the anarchist’s basic anti-authority values. So it seems that he is opposed to authoritarianism, unless it agrees with him, and then he’s all for it. I think a reasonable person should be concerned about how the anarchist might apply such modes of thinking to the legal realm.
Originally written in 2011; revised 1/19/13; converted from PDF version 11/5/2015.
When I use the word “libertarian” in this essay I mean to refer to those who are advocates of individual liberty regardless of whether they personally identify as “libertarian.”
For the purposes of this essay, the term “natural rights” can be taken in the loose sense of being for individual liberty, being against the initiation of the use of force, being for the “principle of non-aggression,” etc. I offer a more rigorous conception of natural rights in For Individual Rights.
There are market anarchists who do not believe that individual rights are moral truth. They merely claim to accept the ideal of non-aggression for personal reasons. But should one trust the word of a person who claims that it’s a myth that one shouldn’t lie, cheat, and steal in order to get what one wants? I think not.
One can debate whether or not the motivations of the United States government abroad is the protection of individual rights, and indeed its many violations of the individual rights of its own citizens would indicate otherwise, but overt rights violations is certainly recognized by modern governments as a valid basis for one country to violate the so-called “sovereignty” of another. In other words, governments are only “sovereign” if they act within certain parameters, just as an ordinary home owner is only sovereign in his home if he acts within certain parameters. War may be the usual modern result of violating “sovereignty,” but it need not be.
Precisely what constitutes just land acquisition is discussed For Individual Rights; without these ideas the following can only be approximately understood.
I do not count those as “anarchists” who are merely recoiling from the dictator, who, being blinded by the hatred of their master, do not realize that it is not the government as such that they hate, but its violations of Natural Law.
See Rose Wilder Lane’s “Discovery of Freedom” for an expanded argument about how governmental authoritarianism is tantamount to pagan idol-worship.
Marxists claimed to be seeking the “withering away of the state,” but the results speak for themselves. See The Masks of Communism, by Dan N. Jacobs.
See p. 67-68 of For Individual Rights, and note well the coincidence of the events listed there and Max Weber’s political works.
A book has been written on this subject called Crisis and Leviathan, by Robert Higgs. In this book he describes this continued escalation of rights violations by government as “the ratchet effect.”
To my knowledge, the first person to discuss this myth in detail was Rose Wilder Lane, in her book The Discovery of Freedom, which I recommend. Lane, daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder, was a “Founding Mother” of the modern liberty movement.
In my opinion, the fundamental tenet of philosophy is the idea that reality exists as a whole that we perceive aspects of, and that knowledge of reality is when our reason properly combines these aspects into a new mental whole. Or: An object in reality causes many effects; the mind perceives many effects and infers the cause.
Induction is the process of reasoning from particulars to generalizations.
It is equally fallacious to focus solely on the good aspects of government and thereby dismiss any evil it may engage in. This is the error of many self-proclaimed “patriots,” who are in fact committing a moral treason in ignoring government evils, a treason that in fact helps cause anarchism to be popular in the first place.