Updated: Against Anarchism

Classical Liberalism,Constitution,Founding Fathers,Justice,Law,libertarianism,Political Philosophy,The State,The West


At the beginning of 2004, David J. Heinrich’s responded on the Mises.org Blog to the article titled “The Criminal’s Theoretical Enabler” (WorldNetDaily, January 9). In reply, I penned the comments posted below. The links to our exchange have since expired. But readers will glean from my reply the gist of my difficulties with anarchism. Anarchism is sexy. I used to think of myself as an anarchist. But after careful consideration, I forfeited sexy for the solid position of classical liberalism.

Read “The Criminal’s Theoretical Enabler” first, and then my reply to David:

David wrote that: “What proportional restitution and punishment are would have to be up to the victim to decide, and his or her decisions would be binding…” [End quote]

I have no objections to leaving it up to the victim to forfeit—or choose his own form of—redress for certain misdemeanors. Many legal solutions are a result of mediation and other perfectly private solutions to non-violent offenses.

I object to leaving punishment for violent crime to the vicissitudes of the victim or his proxies. The possibility that a victim or her proxies choose to let a rapist/murderer go free in favor of financial restitution, for instance, is a reality David concedes (although he says it will be rare, which is not the point. It should never happen, not under the state and not under anarchy). Does the forfeiture of just retribution (which is what this arrangement amounts to, in my opinion) not imply, in the case of murder, that the right to life is a right that the victim’s proxies can choose to alienate or relinquish at will? How else does one construe this position?

The danger of reducing justice in cases of such crimes to a negotiated deal strikes me as moral relativism if not a recipe for nihilism. Again: A belief in the immutability of natural justice has prompted me to rethink the wisdom of the private production of defense.

Also ignored, as I say in the column, it that a violent offender presents a clear and present danger to others, and so his fate, at least in a civilized society, is not only the prerogative of the victim.

Libertarian anarchists, and David makes this point, will rightly argue that under a minimal state and certainly under the state today, criminals could and do get away with murder. This is because the justice system is badly broken.

This fact doesn’t strike me as a sufficient reason to support a state of affairs where, as a matter of principle, proportional, moral retribution will not necessarily be the goal of justice. (The kind of justice sought would depend on the victim, right? It is indeed unlikely that she will support unconditional love as an antidote to violent crime, but if she’s of the Left, then it’s a possibility.)

David writes: “If a woman was raped, she could demand proportional restitution (e.g., whatever fines on the criminal necessary for the emotional harm caused her, castration, and the unexpected forced rape of the criminal)”… The criminal would simply be enslaved to the victim (or her punishment agency, more likely, if she didn’t want to deal with him) until repayment had been met…if a court deems that for restitution, the rapist is to pay the victim $1million and be violently raped, and then as punishment is to be executed…” [End quote]

What if the offender dies due to the castration or the forced rape? Is that proportional justice? I don’t conceal my preference for western tradition, nor the positive view I have of the accretive genius of the common law. What David describes here is primitive victim vigilantism. Indeed personalized retaliatory ‘justice’ can and will take the form of vendetta, not justice. Civilized moral retribution should aim to avoid such barbarism. Under anarchism, David’s proposals can be adopted as a matter of principle rather than as an aberration to be rectified.

David says that “The criminal would simply be enslaved to the victim or her punishment agency…” [End quote]

Well, again 1) victims could demand disproportionate punishment, and the enforcement agency would comply. 2) Some victims will not be covered by a “punishment agency.” Who sees to it that justice is achieved in the case of those who cannot afford or don’t want to contract with a private firm? There is no incentive for an agency to pursue a dangerous offender who has not harmed a client. Do we rely on a bunch of good neighbors who will take up arms and hunt the man/woman down? Or do we as a society, through the law, make a public declaration of the few abiding and immutable values we wish to uphold (i.e., he must be brought to justice and tried in a court of law).

To the extent possible, there must be a commitment, however imperfect, to justice for all and not only for those who’ve contracted with an agency.

That’s why, while David and I agree entirely that the criminal justice system is egregious in its attitude to victims, his definition of the private production of defense as “victim-centered” is, I think, misleading.

On David’s comment about (his) anarchy vs. (my) minarchy. I started out as an anarchist. But I had certain doubts about the private production of justice. To date, they have not been addressed. The main issue, and I spoke of it first in a talk I gave to a Libertarian Party convention last year, is that fundamentally different and competing views of justice (right and wrong) will arise in anarchy. It’s inevitable. How does one reconcile this with a view of the immutability of the natural law and the emphasis on the search for truth as the ultimate value of justice? Since my understanding of justice is based on such a view (applied realistically, of course, to facts and context), I can’t accept this.

Again, that we suffer these pitfalls under the state is not a sufficient argument for making this a perfectly appropriate, ‘principled’ option, which would be the case under anarchy.

David alludes to the gap between his position and mine and puts it down to the anarchy/minarchy divide. As I look at it, better to distinguish good from bad arguments than to separate anarchist from minarchist positions. The goal should be to advance just, rights-based positions. If reality is twisted into pretzels so as to fulfill the requirement for theoretical virginity, then, while clever, the argument isn’t necessarily good. (And sometimes maybe the theory itself needs to be questioned.)

—Written by Ilana Mercer, January 10, 2004

Update (May 2, 2008): Are competition and so-called natural co-operation sufficient to keep human venality and evil in check? My experience in the world—and in a community of relatively elevated people, libertarians—would indicate not. While some anarchists are and were profound thinkers, like Murray Rothbard, Lysander Spooner, Hans-Hermann Hoppe, the Tannehills, the contemporary garden variety anarchist is not a serious thinker. In anarchy, many have simply adopted a rah-rah, fist-in-the-air, I’m-so-sexy stance.

Speaking of profound thinkers I’m privileged to know: Can I neglect what economist George Reisman has observed about anarchy? About “competing governments,’ or the purchase and sale of such government services as police, courts, and military in a free market,” Reisman says this:

“As the result of Ayn Rand’s criticisms, I came to the conclusion that the case was untenable, if for no other reason than that it abandoned the distinction between private action and government action and implicitly urged unregulated, uncontrolled government action, i.e., the uncontrolled, unregulated use of physical force. This was the logical implication of treating government as a free business enterprise. I had to conclude that government in the form of a highly regulated, tightly controlled legal monopoly on the use of force, was necessary after all, in order to provide an essential foundation for unregulated, uncontrolled private markets in all goods and services, which would then function totally free of the threat of physical force. This indeed represented nothing more than a return to my starting point. It was what the government established by the United States’ Constitution had represented, and which I had so much admired.”

CONSIDER 9/11. When libertarian anarchists declare that, and I quote, “the proper authority to exercise a right of self defense against an aggressor is the individual whose rights have been violated, or a designated agent,” however charitably one interprets this, the realistic translation is that innocent victims have no rights against terrorists.

Coming from libertarians, most of whom have adopted anarchism, suggestions such as these translate, in reality, as follows: In essence, the aggressor has all the rights because he places himself outside natural and positive, national and international law. The victim, being law-abiding, has no rights, because his only recourse to justice is through the state. Since the state is illegitimate, or rather, since libertarian anarchists see anything the state does as illegitimate (a logical flaw), the realistic application of this cynical sleight of hand is to wave the victim’s right to have any protection or restitution, however inefficient and insufficient. These are the implications of their words. There is no other interpretation.

Against such abstruseness, one cannot avoid wondering how over 2000 people, whose right to life was sundered, go about nominating a proxy to act on their behalf in a manner that will satisfy libertarian legalities. AND IN THIS DYSTOPIAN WORLD, NOT IN UTOPIA. Remember Ayn Rand’s warning about the “sin of abstraction.” About her beliefs, Chris Sciabarra has written: “No human value can be separated from the conditions that make its achievement possible.”

Once again, in practice, the anarchist libertarian ideas of a just war, which I would agree with in theory, ruled out any action against al Qaida after 9/11. Roy A. Childs Jr. came to the same conclusion as I have come and recanted anarchism in his last years. “It has led too many libertarians away from reality,” he wrote, “and, indeed, seen them on a collision course with it.”

This nation has the proudest of histories. America hails from classical liberalism. We need to distance the current Third-Way social democracy from the long-lost republic and, in that way, revive classical liberalism. As a strategy for going forward, I suggest we draw on this history. Right now, with the influence of anarchists, there is a kind of destructive, infantile anti-authoritarian attitude toward this history.

Many anarchists like to say that there’s nothing libertarian about the U.S. Constitution. I’ll admit to preferring the Articles of Confederation, which were usurped in favor of the Constitution at the Philadelphia convention. But I prefer to say this: To the extent that the Constitution is compatible with the natural law, it’s good; to the extent it isn’t, it’s not. There is a lot wrong with the Constitution, as Rand, a minarchist, also conceded.

Still, disparaging the greatest revolutionaries—politically and philosophically—ever, the American Revolutionaries, is yet another element of a stark, ahistoric worldview rife among many libertarians. Our hope for restoring liberty in the US rests not on obscure references to anarchy and utopia, but on the great tradition from which this nation has sprung.

Anarchists currently make their case with wacky references to examples of anarcho-capitalism in small homogeneous societies—Medieval Viking Age Iceland. Or, even less convincingly among some murderous tribes in Africa. For some loopy reason, they prefer this no-man’s la-la land to the followers of John Locke. This tendency to go off the deep end is precisely what I mean when I equate anarchism with the triumph of sexy and showy.

9 thoughts on “Updated: Against Anarchism

  1. Andrew T.

    I agree!

    I admire Hans-Hermann Hoppe, but I disagree with him in one major way and that’s because I think the case he makes for anarchism is far, far from unassailable. To be antiwar is to be against the greatest sort of war conceivable: the War of All Against All, which I think comes of anarchy by implication, and therefore by definition.

    “Private production” of things like defense and even roadways is praxeologically indefensible since the driving motive from the perspective of the supplier will generally be that of attaining the highest profit gains, rather than the aggregate utility that comes of such things in the long run. But anarchists would contend that “absolute freedom” is more important than justice that does not deviate; though principally they are against a private court ruling unjustly, they have no sense of rational expectations. I can’t stand it when the people at Mises.org try to explain away the solidly limited government views of people like Bastiat, Menger, Bohm-Bawerk, Mises, and Hayek for their own “market anarchist” agenda. R. Dr. Israel Kirzner may be, in my opinion, insufficiently radical politically, but his interpretation of Mises comes out to be highly accurate.

  2. Tim Hopkins

    Citing your summary above:

    “…fundamentally different and competing views of justice (right and wrong) will arise in anarchy. It’s inevitable. How does one reconcile this with a view of the immutability of the natural law and the emphasis on the search for truth as the ultimate value of justice?”

    While you admit that this same problem plagues minarchism, I don’t see how it should lead one to doubt anarchism any more than the validity of limited government. Justice and the rule of objective law flows from a culture and intellectual tradition that upholds these values, and as such really has nothing to do with whether it is administered by a “final arbiter” (which, even by todays standards, is largely a fiction) or a plurality of competing institutions.

    Can we conceive of a decentralized network of institutions specializing in protection and defense based on identical or uniform principles of natural justice, but differing perhaps in optional matters, such as price? I agree that such an outcome is questionable in any human society given human diversity. However, that such an outcome is virtually nonexistent in the modern state presents a problem for minarchism. If one can make the sociological prediction that true justice will fail under any coercive, territorial monopoly of violence, this argument must have equal force against any theoretical consideration of minarchism, and does not merely function as a “cheap victory” for anarchists.

    In short, I think anarchism, like atheism, is inherently negative, as it pertains to the absence of a state. Libertarian anarchism is a more ambitious theory of a society in which the principles of justice you refer to are upheld by voluntary economic relations. This may be considered wishful thinking, but under minarchism it is inconceivable. A society with liberty and property as the prevailing values *might* be able to tolerate a stateless legal order. It cannot *in principle*, tolerate the state.

    Ms. Mercer, I find your articles outstanding and I have no doubt about the thought you would put into a position as fundamental as this. So I hope in registering my disagreement, I have done justice to your viewpoint.

  3. Andrew T.

    I don’t understand why the proponents of minimal government still tote [sic] Ayn Rand as though she was some kind of trophy. It’s my opinion that Rand contributed nothing original or meaningful to any field other than a few oddball novels that everyone’s read and hardly anyone has taken seriously. She was a very totalistic and pretentious woman. As you’re not 100% into her philosophy, Rand would’ve believed you’re “irrational” and therefore hate yourself. I especially think she and her followers always exaggerated the fellowship between her ideas and those of Aristotle and particularly Thomism-Scholasticism, to establish a false sense of continuity.

    I’ve never read any of her books cover-to-cover, and probably never will. I proudly carry this fact like a bumper sticker.

    [It’s beyond me how anyone who confesses to knowing nothing about a significant thinker can be proud of condemning her based on know-nothingness. You condemn your own assertions.—IM]

  4. Andrew T.

    Actually, I know a whole lot about what Rand herself believed; I could eloquently summarize all 5 branches of her philosophy if so demanded, and I have a lot of biographical knowledge about her too. But I’ve never read any of her books in their entirety, and in truth, her novels are not necessary to understand either her personality or philosophy. In fact, in my opinion they’re not even a good way. Besides, Rand had herself convinced that Immanuel Kant was the root of all evil, and she admitted to never reading anything that Kant wrote.

    Knowing about someone doesn’t necessarily mean I have to read a 50-page speech written by a fictional character in their novel.

  5. John Danforth

    Ilana, I think I’ve figured out where this hostility comes from. People begin reading one of the novels, and when they see themselves being starkly depicted in one of the characters, they recoil in shock and horror. As well, many people get to the ‘speech’, and simply can’t hack it. That’s fine, it wasn’t written for them.

  6. Steven Stipulkoski

    I have read all of Ayn Rand’s books though it was long ago (1970’s). She said a lot of good things but I eventually moved on for the following reasons:

    1. She was an atheist. This seems silly because how does one prove a negative? [And how does one credibly defend the West?–IM]

    2. She opposed all altruism when only involuntary altruism should have been opposed.

    3. She was pro-choice thus violating the rights of the unborn. Did she think her right to sexual pleasure trumped an innocent person’s life?

    But she took on the two main enemies of freedom, big government and central banking, so she remains a hero. [As a defender of natural rights she was brilliant.–IM]

  7. Myron Pauli

    I have not seen an example of a stable working anarchy so I consider anarchism to be a form of utopianism. The Rothbardians and others are correct, however, that limited government often evolves into tyranny. Benjamin Franklin mentioned it in September 1787:

    ” I agree to this Constitution with all its faults—if they are such—because I think a general government necessary for us, and there is no form of government but what may be a blessing to the people if well administered; and I believe, further, that this is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic government, being incapable of any other”


    Still, I hope for a “classical liberal” limited government with an eternally vigilant population to KEEP IT LIMITED. Sadly, we have gone from Jefferson, Franklin, and Madison to Bush, Clinton, Obama, and McCain – and most people prefer it that way!

  8. Tim Hopkins


    A classical liberal “limited government”, is not utopian? And if an eternally vigilant population can conceivably act to keep a government limited, can anarchists not similarly assume the same societal vigilance in keeping their institutions from exceeding their proper bounds? In an e-list debate many years ago (ironically, a debate between neo-Objectivists on anarchism vs limited government), George Smith made the point that it will not do for minarchists to subject their limited government to philosophical analysis, while subjecting free market justice agencies to sociological predictions. I have no problem in assuming the worst in people, but if one insists, against all logic, that there *can be * effect and permanent natural checks against governmental tyranny, why is a similar assumption unwarranted among anarchists regarding a stateless society? In fact, in a society that, by definition lacks any formal territorial monopoly of legitimized violence, I think it can be argued that popular vigilance would be much harder to overcome.

  9. Steven Stipulkoski

    Limited government is not enough. A key ingredient is division of powers. This is certainly one of the most effective hobblers of government yet found.

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