The Irrelevance of the Impossibility of Anarcho-Libertarianism, Mises Blog (Aug. 20, 2009) (archived comments below)
A 1982 article, The Impossibility of anarcho-capitalism, was recently called to my attention. In it, the author, one Tony Hollick, argues that the “components” of anarcho-capitalism are:
- A belief that a fully-fledged free-market private property based social order can be realised and maintained without the existence of a single, finally arbitrary system of lawmaking and enforcement which asserts jurisdiction over non-consenting parties.
- A preference for the imagined advantages of that social order however conceived.
- A willingness to advocate attempts to instantiate it as an actual experiment in the more or less foreseeable future.
This type of argument is typical of those who want to argue for states and the aggression states commit, while still adopting the libertarian label. It is a way of changing to subject away from the aggression they favor, by insinuating the presumption that the anarchist is for something, and thus needs to prove it before we abandon the current (statist) order and “adopt” the system known as anarchy. This approach tries to color anarchy as just one of many prima facie equally valid competing possible systems. Anarchists have the burden of proving we should “adopt” it just like a socialist bears the burden of proving we should adopt socialism. Thus, it is not surprising Hollick concludes, “One can only be struck by the similarities between ‘socialism’ and ‘anarchism’. Partisans of every kind rush to show that their vision is uniquely realisable; and the visions cover the entire range of mutually contradictory systems and practices.”
But, of course, anarchists don’t advocate a “substitute system”. We are not for something, other than respect for rights. Rather, we are an-archist, “without (belief in) (political) rulers.” We simply are not persuaded that political action is justified. This is because we see that states by their nature commit aggression–and as we are libertarians and against aggression (see my What Libertarianism Is), we are thus against states.
In other words, to be an anarcho-libertarian is simply to be opposed to aggression, and to recognize that states are inherently aggressive. It does not mean, for example, as Hollick asserts, that we anarchists, qua-anarchist, maintain “A belief that a fully-fledged free-market private property based social order can be realised and maintained without [whatever].” The anarchist is not someone who has a belief about “what will work”. Rather, he is someone who opposes aggression in all its forms. As I explained in What It Means to be an Anarcho-Capitalist:
Conservative and minarchist-libertarian criticism of anarchy on the grounds that it won’t “work” or is not “practical” is just confused. Anarchists don’t (necessarily) predict anarchy will be achieved – I for one don’t think it will. But that does not mean states are justified.
Consider an analogy. Conservatives and libertarians all agree that private crime (murder, robbery, rape) is unjustified, and “should” not occur. Yet no matter how good most men become, there will always be at least some small element who will resort to crime. Crime will always be with us. Yet we still condemn crime and work to reduce it.
Is it logically possible that there could be no crime? Sure. Everyone could voluntarily choose to respect others’ rights. Then there would be no crime. It’s easy to imagine. But given our experience with human nature and interaction, it is safe to say that there will always be crime. Nevertheless, we still proclaim crime to be evil and unjustified, in the face of the inevitability of its recurrence. So to my claim that crime is immoral, it would just be stupid and/or insincere to reply, “but that’s an impractical view” or “but that won’t work,” “since there will always be crime.” The fact that there will always be crime – that not everyone will voluntarily respect others’ rights – does not mean that it’s “impractical” to oppose it; nor does it mean that crime is justified. It does not mean there is some “flaw” in the proposition that crime is wrong.
Likewise, to my claim that the state and its aggression is unjustified, it is disingenuous and/or confused to reply, “anarchy won’t work” or is “impractical” or “unlikely to ever occur.” The view that the state is unjustified is a normative or ethical position. The fact that not enough people are willing to respect their neighbors’ rights to allow anarchy to emerge, i.e., the fact that enough people (erroneously) support the legitimacy of the state to permit it to exist, does not mean that the state, and its aggression, are justified.
In other words, it just won’t do for Hollick to attack anarcho-libertarianism by arguing we haven’t shown that “a fully-fledged free-market private property based social order can be realised and maintained without [whatever]”. In fact, since anarcho-libertarianism just means stringent opposition to aggression, to attack anti-aggressionism just is to defend aggression. And you can’t justify aggression by alleging that libertarians have not proved that a private property order can “work.” What kind of argument is that? “Sir, why are you robbing me? Why are you entitled to do this?” “Why, because you haven’t proved that a private property order can work, that’s why!”
Russ, “I believe that anarchism will result in more violations of rights than a minarchist state will, hence I reject it.”
This is a pretty way of covering up the fact that you are advocating aggression. Instead of saying outright, “I favor some aggression to stop worse aggression; to make an omelet you have to break a few eggs,” you say “I reject anarchy.” Sounds nicer. You are doing just what Hollick does: you set it up as if the anarchist is making a case for which the burden is on him to defend. As if he has to justify his view that aggression is unjustified.
What you are saying is that you are against a situation in which there is no aggression, because you think if there is no aggression, that will somehow result in … more violations of rights than occur where there is institutionalized aggression. I see. Got it.
Let me ask you this, Russ: are you against all private crime (aggression), or only against some private crime? I mean, how can one be against all private crime–that’s “naive,” right? After all, who really thinks that would “work”? Who really thinks we will ever have a crime-free world? How can you oppose something if it is bound to occur? Right?
Me, I despise crime and criminals, and apologists for either.
Published: August 20, 2009 9:51 PMStephan Kinsella
Jay, You’re welcome.
That still leaves me with the desire to apply practical strategies to weaken the state, discredit statists, and in general promote liberty and destroy or limit government as much as possible (even if I am pretty sure that we’ll always have the state in some form, at least till the eternal state).
Exactly. This is a perfect attitude. Of course most of us want to do what we can to be on the side of right, to advance liberty, even if it’s a doomed or losing battle. After all, we are libertarians in the first place because we have chosen the values of peace, civilization, etc., even though our world infringes these all the time, and can be expected to for a long time. But of course there is a role for strategy, tactics, and activism. It’s just important to keep in mind the distinction to ward off disingenuous attacks by statists in libertarian clothing.
Where are the best pracitical suggestions along those lines – if any of you know and are willing to share?
My personal view is that in the long run the only that that can work is economic literacy. Thus we need to educate people; and one way to do it is to support the Mises Institute, and to keep spreading a consistent, principled message of liberty. We can keep learning, both to improve ourselves and to improve our ability to persuade. And by improving ourselves we help present “one improved unit” to society, thus helping to win over people to our other views by the power of attraction.
I would recommend not deluding oneself that we can “win” once and for all; or that winning is all that matters. That way lies the perils of self-delusion, compromise, despair, disengagement, and activism (see my The Trouble with Libertarian Activism).
I would recommend fighting because you want to do the right thing, be on the right side, and make even incremental progress. I would suggest taking heart in Nock’s idea of “the Remnant“–“In his 1936 article “Isaiah’s Job”, which appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, Nock expressed his complete disillusionment with the idea of reforming the current system. Believing that it would be impossible to convince any large portion of the general population of the correct course and opposing any suggestion of a violent revolution, Nock instead argued that libertarians should focus on nurturing what he called “the Remnant”. The Remnant, according to Nock, consisted of a small minority who understood the nature of the state and society, and who would become influential only after the current dangerous course had become thoroughly and obviously untenable, a situation which might not occur until far into the future.”
As for self-education and education of others, one could do worse than to start with bibliographies such as “Hans-Hermann Hoppe on Anarcho-Capitalism” and “Lew Rockwell on Reading for Liberty”; see also my The Greatest Libertarian Books.
So: educate yourself; excel; attract; speak out; be principled; join like-minded libertarians; persuade; fight for liberty!
Published: August 20, 2009 10:39 PMStephan Kinsella
Jay, also see Top Ten Books of Liberty and Other Top Ten Lists of Libertarian Books. And you might also find of interest my post Why I’m a Libertarian — or, Why Libertarianism is Beautiful:
In a recent email, Walter Block wrote, responding some pessimistic comments I had about our libertarian movement:
“Dear Stephan: I never feel like dropping out. Never. No matter what. To me, libertarianism is a most beautiful thing, right up there with Mozart and Bach. Non corborundum illegitimi.
I replied with some comments, and Walter encouraged me to post them, so here they are, lightly edited:
Walter’s email got me to thinking about why I’m a libertarian–why libertarians are libertarian. What is it about us that drives us, that makes us passionate advocates of it, and intensely interested in it? Some of us have been self-indulgent enough to write up how we became libertarians (e.g., my How I Became A Libertarian); but I don’t mean exactly that. I mean what is it about it that you love; that drives you; that attracts you?
Walter’s comment that libertarianism is beautiful struck a chord with me; I think I’d never thought of it that way before. It seemed just, and fair, and right, but beautiful–? but then, justice, and rightness, and fairness, and goodness are beautiful.
I think I’m a libertarian because for some reason I hate injustice; I hate bullies; I hate inconsistency; I love fairness and logical consistency and treating people correctly. I like answering the question asked, and not dodging issues: if someone asks how should this person be treated, I try to answer that question, rather than advert to some Marxian notion of utopia.
I like the ruthless logic of libertarianism and its unflinching honesty: how we are unafraid to say that people have a right to be greedy, or selfish, or rich, or not to hire people because of their race–because it is their property. I like the in-your-faceness of it … when it is simply a matter of venting or justice to hurl in the face of a soma-ridden mainstreamer the solid, bracing truth about things, even if it will do no good. I like libertarianism–I love libertarianism–because I think it is the outcome of goodness applied to human interaction. I do agree that libertarianism is beautiful. It is refreshing and cleansing to know that I am willing to respect the rights of all who will respect mine; and to take the responsibility to earn my own way, and to pay for my own mistakes–and the right to profit from my successes. I am a libertarian because it is obviously good, and I would rather be good than evil; and the more good, the better.
Thoughts of others on your reasons for why you’re a libertarian are welcome in the comments.
Published: August 20, 2009 10:48 PM
[Mises blog cross-post]