Which Takes Priority?

Which Takes Priority?
State or Economic Authority?

There exists a mutual myopia among libertarians. The capitalists mistakenly tend to see all socialism as statist, while the socialists conversely misassess all capitalism as statist. The reason is easy to see: the bulk of mankind, both the prospective converts and opponents, have statist views. Attempts to educate the populace quite correctly target the main audience. Both groups of libertarians take aim at the existing State, the existing authority. This habit of assuming the opponent is a damn Statist must be dropped for this discussion, however, as this is just between us anarchists.

Libertarians agree that political and economic authority are bad. But what priority do they give to these often conflicting types of authority? Which is the worse evil? What should change first?

Type / Import Anti-Statism 1st Economics 1st
Socialist Anarcho-Socialist Minarcho-Socialist
Capitalist Anarcho-Capitalist Minarcho-Capitalist

This type of categorization is not new. Bakunin made the distinction between the libertarian and the economic issues when he said,

Liberty without socialism is privilege and injustice;
socialism without liberty is slavery and brutality.

For the capitalists, the economic issue is respect for property rights. The Libertarian Party would clearly put economic authority first since it condones a (minimal) State to defend property rights. The LP would be minarcho-capitalist by this classification. On the other hand, the anarcho-capitalists are primarily against the State, and only secondarily propertarian. The blackboard utopia of free-market cooperation is not considered a pre-determined fact of the future, but rather a reasonable model for predicting the hypothetical state of affairs if government were gone. Free capitalism is simply a familiar mode of voluntary interaction and decision-making, admired by anarcho-capitalists in much the same way that socialist anarchists admire decentralized majoritarian democracy. On pure libertarian grounds, the decentralized individualist weighted voting of the market is intrinsically superior to traditional voting, which a) must have comparatively more centralization in authentication (if not location) and b) does not account for individual variations in intensity of support.

For the socialists, the economic issue is: devolving control of property (at least land and capital goods) to the workers. The classical anarchists would give the anti-statist principle priority - Michael Bakunin was quite clear on this. On the other hand, some present day "anarchists" give priority to the economic issue. Anarcho-syndicalist Ulrike Heider, in Anarchism: Left, Right, and Green wrote,

What one thinks about property - particularly about who should own the means of production - makes all the difference.

Heider points out, however, that anarcho-syndicalist theorist Sam Dolgoff holds anti-statism to be unqualified and primary:

Like Bakunin, he views the State as the source and perpetrator of domination and inequality rather than as the product of class differences. ... The state came into being through robbery, conquest, and plunder, and is nothing but institutionalized domination by hordes of troops or gangs of thieves.

It is noteworthy that Proudhon opposed taxing the rich at a higher rate than the poor, and that Bakunin did not have an expropriation plank in his Revolutionary Catechism. They believed that the State was the primary problem, and that the problems of property distribution were a result of statist authority. Proudhon and Bakunin both seemed to think that, without the support of the State, propertarian issues were quite surmountable. Proudhon would beat the capitalists at their own game, by enticing the consumers into mutuals. Bakunin thought that unbuttressed by State and without inheritance, property would flow into the hands of the proletariat in a generation.

Socialist libertarians who give priority to the anti-property issue over the anti-state issue are actually minarchists rather than anarchists. Like the minarcho-capitalist LP's, they are willing to utilize State power when it suits their economic objective - only a little bit, just in this instance, we promise.

How can you tell a true absolutist anarchist from a relatively libertarian pretender? A minarchist, by definition, contends that there exists some function or service that the State may properly do. Some "acid tests" for capitalist libertarians are: legal services, police services, and national defense. Critical test issues for socialist libertarians are: minimum wage laws, laws against hiring permanent replacements for strikers, government funded welfare. The slightest approval of government authority on these issues is inconsistent with "true" radical absolutist anarchy.

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Send comments to: abcritter@yahoo.com. Revised 12/17/96

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