Anarchist Theory FAQ
or Instead of a FAQ, by a Man Too Busy to Write OneVersion 5.2 by Bryan Caplan Mirror/update of this page.
I heartily accept the motto, - "That government is best which governs least;" and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which I also believe, - "That government is best which governs not at all;" and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.
– Henry David Thoreau, On the Duty of Civil Disobedience
Some writers have so confounded society with government, as to leave little or no distinction between them; whereas they are not only different, but have different origins ... Society is in every state a blessing, but Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one.
– Thomas Paine, Common Sense
They [the Marxists] maintain that only a dictatorship - their dictatorship, of course - can create the will of the people, while our answer to this is: No dictatorship can have any other aim but that of self-perpetuation, and it can beget only slavery in the people tolerating it; freedom can be created only by freedom, that is, by a universal rebellion on the part of the people and free organization of the toiling masses from the bottom up.
– Mikhail Bakunin, Statism and Anarchy
In existing States a fresh law is looked upon as a remedy for evil. Instead of themselves altering what is bad, people begin by demanding a law to alter it. If the road between two villages is impassable, the peasant says, "There should be a law about parish roads." If a park-keeper takes advantage of the want of spirit in those who follow him with servile obedience and insults one of them, the insulted man says, "There should be a law to enjoin more politeness upon the park-keepers." If there is stagnation in agriculture or commerce, the husbandman, cattle-breeder, or corn- speculator argues, "It is protective legislation which we require." Down to the old clothesman there is not one who does not demand a law to protect his own little trade. If the employer lowers wages or increases the hours of labor, the politician in embryo explains, "We must have a law to put all that to rights." In short, a law everywhere and for everything! A law about fashions, a law about mad dogs, a law about virtue, a law to put a stop to all the vices and all the evils which result from human indolence and cowardice.
– Peter Kropotkin, Law and Authority
Whoever desires liberty, should understand these vital facts, viz.: 1. That every man who puts money into the hands of a "government" (so called) puts into its hands a sword which will be used against himself, to extort more money from him, and also to keep him in subjection to its arbitrary will. 2. That those who will take his money, without his consent, in the first place, will use it for his further robbery and enslavement, if he presumes to resist their demands in the future. 3. That it is a perfect absurdity to suppose that any body of men would ever take a man's money without his consent, for any such object as they profess to take it for, viz., that of protecting him; for why should they wish to protect him, if he does not wish them to do so?... 4. If a man wants "protection," he is competent to make his own bargains for it; and nobody has any occasion to rob him, in order to "protect" him against his will. 5. That the only security men can have for their political liberty, consists in their keeping their money in their own pockets, until they have assurances, perfectly satisfactory to themselves, that it will be used as they wish it to be used, for their benefit, and not for their injury. 6. That no government, so called, can reasonably be trusted for a moment, or reasonably be supposed to have honest purposes in view, any longer than it depends wholly upon voluntary support.
– Lysander Spooner, No Treason: the Constitution of No Authority
If we look at the black record of mass murder, exploitation, and tyranny levied on society by governments over the ages, we need not be loath to abandon the Leviathan State and ... try freedom.
– Murray Rothbard, For a New Liberty
- What is anarchism? What beliefs do anarchists share?
Anarchism is defined by The American Heritage College Dictionary as "The theory or doctrine that all forms of government are unnecessary, oppressive, and undesirable and should be abolished." Anarchism is a negative; it holds that one thing, namely government, is bad and should be abolished. Aside from this defining tenet, it would be difficult to list any belief that all anarchists hold. Just as atheists might support or oppose any viewpoint consistent with the non-existence of God, anarchists might and indeed do hold the entire range of viewpoints consistent with the non-existence of the state.
As might be expected, different groups of anarchists are constantly trying to define anarchists with different views out of existence, just as many Christians say that their sect is the only "true" Christianity and many socialists say that their socialism is the only "true" socialism. This FAQ takes what seems to me to be the impartial view that such tactics are pointless and merely prevent the debate of substantive issues.
(N.B. The preceding definition has been criticized a number of times. To view my appendix on Defining Anarchism, click here.)
- Why should one consider anarchism in the first place?
Unlike many observers of history, anarchists see a common thread behind most of mankind's problems: the state. In the 20th-century alone, states have murdered well over 100,000,000 human beings, whether in war, concentration camps, or man-made famine. And this is merely a continuation of a seemingly endless historical pattern: almost from the beginning of recorded history, governments have existed. Once they arose, they allowed a ruling class to live off the labor of the mass of ordinary people; and these ruling classes have generally used their ill-gotten gains to build armies and wage war to extend their sphere of influence. At the same time, governments have always suppressed unpopular minorities, dissent, and the efforts of geniuses and innovators to raise humanity to new intellectual, moral, cultural, and economic heights. By transferring surplus wealth from producers to the state's ruling elite, the state has often strangled any incentive for long-run economic growth and thus stifled humanity's ascent from poverty; and at the same time the state has always used that surplus wealth to cement its power.
If the state is the proximate cause of so much needless misery and cruelty, would it not be desirable to investigate the alternatives? Perhaps the state is a necessary evil which we cannot eliminate. But perhaps it is rather an unnecessary evil which we accept out of inertia when a totally different sort of society would be a great improvement.
- Don't anarchists favor chaos?
By definition, anarchists oppose merely government, not order or society. "Liberty is the Mother, not the Daughter of Order" wrote Proudhon, and most anarchists would be inclined to agree. Normally, anarchists demand abolition of the state because they think that they have something better to offer, not out of a desire for rebellion as such. Or as Kropotkin put it, "No destruction of the existing order is possible, if at the time of the overthrow, or of the struggle leading to the overthrow, the idea of what is to take the place of what is to be destroyed is not always present in the mind. Even the theoretical criticism of the existing conditions is impossible, unless the critic has in mind a more or less distinct picture of what he would have in place of the existing state. Consciously or unconsciously, the ideal, the conception of something better is forming in the mind of everyone who criticizes social institutions."
There is an anti-intellectual strain in anarchism which favors chaos and destruction as an end-in-itself. While possibly a majority among people who have called themselves anarchists, this is not a prominent strand of thought among those who have actually spent time thinking and writing about anarchist theory.
- Don't anarchists favor the abolition of the family, property, religion, and other social institutions besides the state?
Some anarchists have favored the abolition of one or more of the above, while others have not. To some, all of these are merely other forms of oppression and domination. To others, they are the vital intermediary institutions which protect us from the state. To still others, some of the above are good and others are bad; or perhaps they are bad currently, but merit reform.
- What major subdivisions may be made among anarchists?
As should become plain to the reader of alt.society.anarchy or alt.anarchism, there are two rather divergent lines of anarchist thought. The first is broadly known as "left-anarchism," and encompasses anarcho-socialists, anarcho-syndicalists, and anarcho-communists. These anarchists believe that in an anarchist society, people either would or should abandon or greatly reduce the role of private property rights. The economic system would be organized around cooperatives, worker-owned firms, and/or communes. A key value in this line of anarchist thought is egalitarianism, the view that inequalities, especially of wealth and power, are undesirable, immoral, and socially contingent.
The second is broadly known as "anarcho-capitalism." These anarchists believe that in an anarchist society, people either would or should not only retain private property, but expand it to encompass the entire social realm. No anarcho-capitalist has ever denied the right of people to voluntarily pool their private property and form a cooperative, worker-owned firm, or commune; but they also believe that several property, including such organizations as corporations, are not only perfectly legitimate but likely to be the predominant form of economic organization under anarchism. Unlike the left-anarchists, anarcho-capitalists generally place little or no value on equality, believing that inequalities along all dimensions -- including income and wealth -- are not only perfectly legitimate so long as they "come about in the right way," but are the natural consequence of human freedom.
A large segment of left-anarchists is extremely skeptical about the anarchist credentials of anarcho-capitalists, arguing that the anarchist movement has historically been clearly leftist. In my own view, it is necessary to re-write a great deal of history to maintain this claim. In Carl Landauer's European Socialism: A History of Ideas and Movements (published in 1959 before any important modern anarcho-capitalist works had been written), this great socialist historian notes that:
To be sure, there is a difference between individualistic anarchism and collectivistic or communistic anarchism; Bakunin called himself a communist anarchist. But the communist anarchists also do not acknowledge any right of society to force the individual. They differ from the anarchistic individualists in their belief that men, if freed from coercion, will enter into voluntary associations of a communistic type, while the other wing believes that the free person will prefer a high degree of isolation. The communist anarchists repudiate the right of private property which is maintained through the power of the state. The individualist anarchists are inclined to maintain private property as a necessary condition of individual independence, without fully answering the question of how property could be maintained without courts and police.
Actually, Tucker and Spooner both wrote about the free market's ability to provide legal and protection services, so Landauer's remark was not accurate even in 1959. But the interesting point is that before the emergence of modern anarcho-capitalism Landauer found it necessary to distinguish two strands of anarchism, only one of which he considered to be within the broad socialist tradition.
- Is anarchism the same thing as libertarianism?
This is actually a complicated question, because the term "libertarianism" itself has two very different meanings. In Europe in the 19th-century, libertarianism was a popular euphemism for left-anarchism. However, the term did not really catch on in the United States.
After World War II, many American-based pro-free-market intellectuals opposed to traditional conservatism were seeking for a label to describe their position, and eventually picked "libertarianism." ("Classical liberalism" and "market liberalism" are alternative labels for the same essential position.) The result was that in two different political cultures which rarely communicated with one another, the term "libertarian" was used in two very different ways. At the current time, the American use has basically taken over completely in academic political theory (probably owing to Nozick's influence), but the European use is still popular among many left-anarchist activists in both Europe and the U.S.
The semantic confusion was complicated further when some of the early post-war American libertarians determined that the logical implication of their view was, in fact, a variant of anarchism. They adopted the term "anarcho-capitalism" to differentiate themselves from more moderate libertarianism, but were still generally happy to identify themselves with the broader free-market libertarian movement.
- Is anarchism the same thing as socialism?
If we accept one traditional definition of socialism -- "advocacy of government ownership of the means of production" -- it seems that anarchists are not socialists by definition. But if by socialism we mean something more inclusive, such as "advocacy of the strong restriction or abolition of private property," then the question becomes more complex.
Under the second proffered definition, some anarchists are socialists, but others are not. Outside of the Anglo- American political culture, there has been a long and close historical relationship between the more orthodox socialists who advocate a socialist government, and the anarchist socialists who desire some sort of decentralized, voluntary socialism. The two groups both want to severely limit or abolish private property and thus both groups fit the second definition of socialism. However, the anarchists certainly do not want the government to own the means of production, for they don't want government to exist in the first place.
The anarchists' dispute with the traditional socialists -- a dispute best illustrated by the bitter struggle between Karl Marx and Mikhail Bakunin for dominance in the 19th-century European workers' movement -- has often be described as a disagreement over "means." On this interpretation, the socialist anarchists and the state-socialists agree that a communal and egalitarian society is desirable, but accuse one another of proposing ineffective means of attaining it. However, this probably understates the conflict, which is also over more fundamental values: socialist anarchists emphasize the need for autonomy and the evils of authoritarianism, while traditional socialists have frequently belittled such concerns as "bourgeois."Herbert Spencer
When we turn to the Anglo-American political culture, the story is quite different. Virulent anti-socialist anarchism is much more common there, and has been from the early 19th-century. Great Britain was the home of many intensely anti-socialist quasi-anarchistic thinkers of the 19th-century such as Auberon Herbert and the early Herbert Spencer. The United States has been an even more fertile ground for individualist anarchism: during the 19th-century, such figures as Josiah Warren, Lysander Spooner , and Benjamin Tucker gained prominence for their vision of an anarchism based upon freedom of contract and private property. And in the 20th-century, thinkers residing within the United States have been the primary developers and exporters of anarcho-capitalist theory.
Still, this geographic division should not be over-stated. The French anarchist Proudhon and the German Max Stirner both embraced modified forms of individualism; a number of left-anarchists (often European immigrants) attained prominence in the United States; and Noam Chomsky and Murray Bookchin, two of the most influential theorists of modern left-anarchism, both reside within the United States.
- Who are the major anarchist thinkers?Emma Goldman
The most famous left-anarchists have probably been Mikhail Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin. Pierre Proudhon is also often included although his ideas on the desirability of a modified form of private property would lead some to exclude him from the leftist camp altogether. (Some of Proudhon's other heterodoxies include his defense of the right of inheritance and his emphasis on the genuine antagonism between state power and property rights.) More recent left-anarchists include Emma Goldman, Murray Bookchin , and Noam Chomsky.Lysander Spooner
More comprehensive listings of anarchist figures may be found in a number of broad historical works listed later in the FAQ.
- How would left-anarchy work?
There are many different views on this. Among left- anarchists, there are some who imagine returning to a much simpler, even pre-industrial, mode of social organization. Others seem to intend to maintain modern technology and civilization (perhaps in a more environmentally sound manner) but end private ownership of the means of production.
To be replaced with what? Various suggestions have been made. Existing firms might simply be turned over to worker ownership, and then be subject to the democratic control of the workers. This is the anarcho-syndicalist picture: keeping an economy based upon a multitude of firms, but with firms owned and managed by the workers at each firm. Presumably firms would then strike deals with one another to secure needed materials; or perhaps firms would continue to pay money wages and sell products to consumers. It is unclear how the syndicalist intends to arrange for the egalitarian care of the needy, or the provision of necessary but unprofitable products. Perhaps it is supposed that syndicates would contribute out of social responsibility; others have suggested that firms would elect representatives for a larger meta-firm organization which would carry out the necessary tasks.
It should be noted that Tom Wetzel disputes my characterization of anarcho-syndicalism; he argues that very few anarcho-syndicalists ever imagined that workers would simply take over their firms, while maintaining the basic features of the market economy. Rather, the goal has usually been the establishment of an overarching democratic structure, rather than a multitude of uncoordinated firm-centered democracies. Or at Wetzel states, "Anarcho-syndicalism advocates the development of a mass workers' movement based on direct democracy as the vehicle for reorganization of the society on the basis of direct workers' collective power over social production, thus eliminating the domination and exploitation of the producing class by an exploiting class. Workers cannot have collective power over the system of social production as isolated groups competing in a market economy; rather, workers self- management requires structures of democratic control over social production and public affairs generally. Workers' self- management thus refers, not just to self-management of the individual workplace, but of the whole system of social production. This requires grassroots bodies, such as workers' congresses or conventions, through which coordinated policies for the society can be developed in a democratic manner. This is proposed as a substitute or replacement for the historical nation-state." On this interpretation of anarcho-syndicalism, the revolutionary trade unions are a means for achieving an anarchist society, rather than a proposed basis for social organization under anarchy.
Many would observe that there is nothing anarchistic about this proposal; indeed, names aside, it fits easily into the orthodox state-socialist tradition. Bakunin would have probably ridiculed such ideas as authoritarian Marxist socialism in disguise, and predicted that the leading anarchist revolutionaries would swiftly become the new despots. But Wetzel is perhaps right that many or even most historical anarcho-syndicalists were championing the system outlined in his preceding quotation. He goes on to add that "[I]f you look at the concept of 'state' in the very abstract way it often is in the social sciences, as in Weber's definition, then what the anarcho-syndicalists were proposing is not elimination of the state or government, but its radical democratization. That was not how anarchists themselves spoke about it, but it can be plausibly argued that this is a logical consequence of a certain major stream of left-anarchist thought."
Ronald Fraser's discussion of the ideology of the Spanish Anarchists (historically the largest European anarchist movement) strongly undermines Wetzel's claim, however. There were two well-developed lines of thought, both of which favored the abolition of the State in the broad Weberian sense of the word, and which did indeed believe that the workers should literally have control over their workplaces. After distinguishing the rural and the urban tendencies among the Spanish ideologists, Fraser explains:
Common to both tendencies was the idea that the working class 'simply' took over factories and workplaces and ran them collectively but otherwise as before... Underlying this vision of simple continuity was the anarcho-syndicalist concept of the revolution not as a rupture with, the destruction and replacement of, the bourgeois order but as the latter's displacement. The taking over of factories and workplaces, however violently carried out, was not the beginning of the revolution to create a new order but its final goal. This view, in turn was conditioned by a particular view of the state. Any state (bourgeois or working class) was considered an oppressive power tout court - not as the organization of a particular class's coercive power. The 'state' in consequence, rather than the existence of the capitalist mode of production which gave rise to its particular form, often appeared as the major enemy. The state did not have to be taken, crushed, and a new - revolutionary - power established. No. If it could be swept away, abolished, everything else, including oppression, disappeared. The capitalist order was simply displaced by the new-won workers' freedom to administer the workplaces they had taken over. Self-organized in autonomous communes or in all-powerful syndicates, the workers, as the primary factor in production, dispensed with the bourgeoisie. The consequences of this were seen in the 1936 Barcelona revolution; capitalist production and market relations continued to exist within collectivized industry.
Overall, the syndicalist is probably the best elaborated of the left-anarchist systems. But others in the broader tradition imagine individuals forming communes and cooperatives which would be less specialized and more self- sufficient than the typical one-product-line anarcho- syndicalist firm. These notions are often closely linked to the idea of creating a more environmentally sound society, in which small and decentralized collectives redirect their energies towards a Greener way of life.
Many left-anarchists and anarchist sympathizers have also been attracted to Guild Socialism in one form or another. Economist Roger A. McCain thoughtfully explores Guild Socialism as an alternative to both capitalism and the state in "Guild Socialism Reconsidered," one of his working papers.Peter Kropotkin
Kropotkin's lucid essay "Law and Authority" gives a thoughtful presentation of the left-anarchist's view of law. Primitive human societies, explains Kropotkin, live by what legal thinkers call "customary law": an unwritten but broadly understood body of rules and appropriate behavior backed up primarily by social pressure. Kropotkin considers this sort of behavioral regulation to be unobjectionable, and probably consistent with his envisaged anarchist society. But when centralized governments codified customary law, they mingled the sensible dictates of tribal conscience with governmental sanctions for exploitation and injustice. As Kropotkin writes, "[L]egislators confounded in one code the two currents of custom ... the maxims which represent principles of morality and social union wrought out as a result of life in common, and the mandates which are meant to ensure external existence to inequality. Customs, absolutely essential to the very being of society, are, in the code, cleverly intermingled with usages imposed by the ruling caste, and both claim equal respect from the crowd. 'Do not kill,' says the code, and hastens to add, 'And pay tithes to the priest.' 'Do not steal,' says the code, and immediately after, 'He who refuses to pay taxes, shall have his hand struck off.'"
So perhaps Kropotkin's ideal society would live under the guidance of a reformed customary law stripped of the class legislation with which it is now so closely associated. But Kropotkin continues to give what appear to be arguments against even customary law prohibiting e.g. murder. Almost all violent crime is actually caused by poverty and inequality created by existing law. A small residual of violent crime might persist, but efforts to handle it by legal channels are futile. Why? Because punishment has no effect on crime, especially such crimes of passion as would survive the abolition of private property. Moreover, criminals should not be judged wicked, but rather treated as we now treat the sick and disadvantaged.
Most left-anarchists probably hold to a mix of Kropotkin's fairly distinct positions on law and crime. Existing law should be replaced by sensible and communitarian customs; and the critic of anarchism underestimates the extent to which existing crime is in fact a product of the legal system's perpetuation of inequality and poverty. And since punishment is not an effective deterrent, and criminals are not ultimately responsible for their misdeeds, a strictly enforced legal code may be undesirable anyway.
Some other crucial features of the left-anarchist society are quite unclear. Whether dissidents who despised all forms of communal living would be permitted to set up their own inegalitarian separatist societies is rarely touched upon. Occasionally left-anarchists have insisted that small farmers and the like would not be forcibly collectivized, but the limits of the right to refuse to adopt an egalitarian way of life are rarely specified.
- How would anarcho-capitalism work?
Most of the prominent anarcho-capitalist writers have been academic economists, and as such have felt it necessary to spell out the workings of their preferred society in rather greater detail than the left-anarchists have. In order to best grasp the anarcho-capitalist position, it is helpful to realize that anarcho-capitalists have emerged almost entirely out of the modern American libertarian movement, and believe that their view is simply a slightly more extreme version of the libertarianism propounded by e.g. Robert Nozick.Milton Friedman
FAQs on the broader libertarian movement are widely available on the Net, so we will only give the necessary background here. So-called "minarchist" libertarians such as Nozick have argued that the largest justified government was one which was limited to the protection of individuals and their private property against physical invasion; accordingly, they favor a government limited to supplying police, courts, a legal code, and national defense. This normative theory is closely linked to laissez-faire economic theory, according to which private property and unregulated competition generally lead to both an efficient allocation of resources and (more importantly) a high rate of economic progress. While left-anarchists are often hostile to "bourgeois economics," anarcho-capitalists hold classical economists such as Adam Smith, David Hume, and Jean-Baptiste Say in high regard, as well as more modern economists such as Joseph Schumpeter, Ludwig von Mises, F.A. Hayek, Milton Friedman, George Stigler, and James Buchanan. The problem with free-market economists, say the anarcho-capitalists, is not that they defend the free market, but merely that their defense is too moderate and compromising.
(Note however that the left-anarchists' low opinion of the famous "free-market economists" is not monolithic: Noam Chomsky in particular has repeatedly praised some of the political insights of Adam Smith. And Peter Kropotkin also had good things to say about Smith as both social scientist and moralist; Conal Smith explains that "In particular he approved of Smith's attempt to apply the scientific method to the study of morals and society, his critique of the state in The Wealth of Nations, and his theory of human sociability in The Theory of Moral Sentiments.")
Now the anarcho-capitalist essentially turns the minarchist's own logic against him, and asks why the remaining functions of the state could not be turned over to the free market. And so, the anarcho-capitalist imagines that police services could be sold by freely competitive firms; that a court system would emerge to peacefully arbitrate disputes between firms; and that a sensible legal code could be developed through custom, precedent, and contract. And in fact, notes the anarcho-capitalist, a great deal of modern law (such as the Anglo-American common law) originated not in legislatures, but from the decentralized rulings of judges. (The anarcho-capitalist shares Kropotkin's interest in customary law, but normally believes that it requires extensive modernization and articulation.)
The anarcho-capitalist typically hails modern society's increasing reliance on private security guards, gated communities, arbitration and mediation, and other demonstrations of the free market's ability to supply the defensive and legal services normally assumed to be of necessity a government monopoly. In his ideal society, these market alternatives to government services would take over all legitimate security services. One plausible market structure would involve individuals subscribing to one of a large number of competing police services; these police services would then set up contracts or networks for peacefully handling disputes between members of each others' agencies. Alternately, police services might be "bundled" with housing services, just as landlords often bundle water and power with rental housing, and gardening and security are today provided to residents in gated communities and apartment complexes.
The underlying idea is that contrary to popular belief, private police would have strong incentives to be peaceful and respect individual rights. For first of all, failure to peacefully arbitrate will yield to jointly destructive warfare, which will be bad for profits. Second, firms will want to develop long- term business relationships, and hence be willing to negotiate in good faith to insure their long-term profitability. And third, aggressive firms would be likely to attract only high-risk clients and thus suffer from extraordinarily high costs (a problem parallel to the well-known "adverse selection problem" in e.g. medical insurance - the problem being that high-risk people are especially likely to seek insurance, which drives up the price when riskiness is hard for the insurer to discern or if regulation requires a uniform price regardless of risk). Anarcho-capitalists generally give little credence to the view that their "private police agencies" would be equivalent to today's mafia - the cost advantages of open, legitimate business would make "criminal police" uncompetitive. As David Friedman explains in The Machinery of Freedom, "Perhaps the best way to see why anarcho-capitalism would be so much more peaceful than our present system is by analogy. Consider our world as it would be if the cost of moving from one country to another were zero. Everyone lives in a housetrailer and speaks the same language. One day, the president of France announces that because of troubles with neighboring countries, new military taxes are being levied and conscription will begin shortly. The next morning the president of France finds himself ruling a peaceful but empty landscape, the population having been reduced to himself, three generals, and twenty-seven war correspondents."
(Moreover, anarcho-capitalists argue, the Mafia can only thrive in the artificial market niche created by the prohibition of alcohol, drugs, prostitution, gambling, and other victimless crimes. Mafia gangs might kill each other over turf, but liquor-store owners generally do not.)
Unlike some left-anarchists, the anarcho-capitalist has no objection to punishing criminals; and he finds the former's claim that punishment does not deter crime to be the height of naivete. Traditional punishment might be meted out after a conviction by a neutral arbitrator; or a system of monetary restitution (probably in conjunction with a prison factory system) might exist instead. A convicted criminal would owe his victim compensation, and would be forced to work until he paid off his debt. Overall, anarcho-capitalists probably lean more towards the restitutionalist rather than the pure retributivist position.Murray Rothbard
Probably the main division between the anarcho-capitalists stems from the apparent differences between Rothbard's natural-law anarchism, and David Friedman's more economistic approach. Rothbard puts more emphasis on the need for a generally recognized libertarian legal code (which he thinks could be developed fairly easily by purification of the Anglo-American common law), whereas Friedman focuses more intently on the possibility of plural legal systems co-existing and responding to the consumer demands of different elements of the population. The difference, however, is probably over-stated. Rothbard believes that it is legitimate for consumer demand to determine the philosophically neutral content of the law, such as legal procedure, as well as technical issues of property right definition such as water law, mining law, etc. And Friedman admits that "focal points" including prevalent norms are likely to circumscribe and somewhat standardize the menu of available legal codes.
Critics of anarcho-capitalism sometimes assume that communal or worker-owned firms would be penalized or prohibited in an anarcho-capitalist society. It would be more accurate to state that while individuals would be free to voluntarily form communitarian organizations, the anarcho- capitalist simply doubts that they would be widespread or prevalent. However, in theory an "anarcho-capitalist" society might be filled with nothing but communes or worker- owned firms, so long as these associations were formed voluntarily (i.e., individuals joined voluntarily and capital was obtained with the consent of the owners) and individuals retained the right to exit and set up corporations or other profit-making, individualistic firms.
On other issues, the anarcho-capitalist differs little if at all from the more moderate libertarian. Services should be privatized and opened to free competition; regulation of personal AND economic behavior should be done away with. Poverty would be handled by work and responsibility for those able to care for themselves, and voluntary charity for those who cannot. (Libertarians hasten to add that a deregulated economy would greatly increase the economic opportunities of the poor, and elimination of taxation would lead to a large increase in charitable giving.)
For a detailed discussion of the economics of privatization of dispute resolution, rule creation, and enforcement, see my "The Economics of Non-State Legal Systems," which is archived with my other economics writings.
- What criticisms have been made of anarchism?
Anarchism of various breeds has been criticized from an extremely wide range of perspectives. State-socialists, classical liberals, and conservatives have each on occasion examined anarchist theorists and found them wanting. After considering the unifying argument endorsed by virtually all of the critics of anarchism, we shall turn to the more specific attacks of Marxist, moderate libertarian, and conservative lineage.
"An anarchist society, lacking any central coercive authority, would quickly degenerate into violent chaos."
The most common criticism, shared by the entire range of critics, is basically that anarchism would swiftly degenerate into a chaotic Hobbesian war of all-against-all. Thus the communist Friedrich Engels wonders "[H]ow these people propose to run a factory, operate a railway or steer a ship without having in the last resort one deciding will, without single management, they of course do not tell us." He continues: "The authority of the majority over the minority also ceases. Every individual and every community is autonomous; but as to how society, even of only two people, is possible unless each gives up some of his autonomy, Bakunin again maintains silence." And similarly, the classical liberal Ludwig von Mises states that "An anarchistic society would be exposed to the mercy of every individual. Society cannot exist if the majority is not ready to hinder, by the application or threat of violent action, minorities from destroying the social order. This power is vested in the state or government."Ludwig von Mises
Or to consider a perhaps less ideological writer, Thomas Hobbes implicitly criticizes anarchist theory when he explains that "Hereby it is manifest, that during the time men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called Warre; and such a warre, as is of every man, against every man." Hobbes goes on to add that "It may peradventure be thought, there was never such a time, nor condition of warre as this; and I believe it was never generally so, over all the world: but there are many places, where they live so now. For the savage people in many places of America, except the government of small Families, the concord whereof dependeth on naturall lust, have no government at all; and live at this day in that brutish manner, as I said before." Since it is in the interest of the strong to take what they want from the weak, the absence of government lead inexorably to widespread violence and the prevention or destruction of civilization itself.Thomas Hobbes
Anarchists of all varieties would reject this argument; sometimes claiming that the critic misunderstands their position, other times that the critic's assumptions are too pessimistic. Kropotkin, for example, would seriously dispute the claim that war is the natural state of ungoverned human beings; like many other species of animals, cooperation is more common, natural, and likely. Left- anarchists generally would normally object that these criticisms rest upon contingent cultural assumptions arising from a competitive scarcity economy. Replace these institutions with humane and egalitarian ones; then poverty, the cause of crime and aggression, would greatly decrease. Finally, many left- anarchists envisage cooperatives and communes adopting and enforcing rules of appropriate conduct for those who wish to join.
The anarcho-capitalist would likely protest that the critic misunderstands his view: he does believe that police and laws are necessary and desirable, and merely holds that they could be supplied by the free market rather than government. More fundamentally, he doubts the game- theoretic underpinnings of Hobbes' argument, for it ignores the likelihood that aggressive individuals or firms will provoke retaliation. Just as territorial animals fight when defending their territory, but yield when confronted on the territory of another animal, rational self-interested individuals and firms would usually find aggression a dangerous and unprofitable practice. In terms of game theory, the anarcho-capitalist thinks that Hobbes' situation is a Hawk-Dove game rather than a Prisoners' Dilemma. (In the Prisoners' Dilemma, war/non-cooperation would be a strictly dominant strategy; in a Hawk-Dove game there is normally a mixed-strategy equilibrium in which cooperation/peace is the norm but a small percentage of players continue to play war/non-cooperation.) Self- interested police firms would gladly make long-term arbitration contracts with each other to avoid mutually destructive bloodshed.
(To view an excellent short related essay on anarchism and game theory, click here.)
- The Marxist critique of left-anarchismKarl Marx
One of the most famous attacks on anarchism was launched by Karl Marx during his battles with Proudhon and Bakunin. The ultimate result of this protracted battle of words was to split the 19th-century workers' movement into two distinct factions. In the 20th century, the war of words ended in blows: while Marxist-Leninists sometimes cooperated with anarchists during the early stages of the Russian and Spanish revolutions, violent struggle between them was the rule rather than the exception.
There were at least three distinct arguments that Marx aimed at his anarchist opponents.Mikhail Bakunin
First: the development of socialism had to follow a particular historical course, whereas the anarchists mistakenly believed that it could be created by force of will alone. "A radical social revolution is connected with certain historical conditions of economic development; the latter are its presupposition. Therefore it is possible only where the industrial proletariat, together with capitalist production, occupies at least a substantial place in the mass of the people." Marx continues: "He [Bakunin] understands absolutely nothing about social revolution ... For him economic requisites do not exist...He wants a European social revolution, resting on the economic foundation of capitalist production, to take place on the level of the Russian or Slavic agricultural and pastoral peoples ... Will power and not economic conditions is the basis for his social revolution." Proudhon, according to Marx, suffered from the same ignorance of history and its laws: "M. Proudhon, incapable of following the real movement of history, produces a phantasmagoria which presumptuously claims to be dialectical ... From his point of view man is only the instrument of which the idea or the eternal reason makes use in order to unfold itself." This particular argument is probably of historical interest only, in light of the gross inaccuracy of Marx's prediction of the path of future civilization; although perhaps the general claim that social progression has material presuppositions retains some merit.
Second, Marx ridiculed Bakunin's claim that a socialist government would become a new despotism by socialist intellectuals. In light of the prophetic accuracy of Bakunin's prediction in this area, Marx's reply is almost ironic: "Under collective ownership the so-called people's will disappears to make way for the real will of the cooperative." It is on this point that most left-anarchists reasonably claim complete vindication; just as Bakunin predicted, the Marxist "dictatorship of the proletariat" swiftly became a ruthless "dictatorship over the proletariat."
Finally, Marx stated that the anarchists erroneously believed that the government supported the capitalist system rather than the other way around. In consequence, they were attacking the wrong target and diverting the workers' movement from its proper course. Engels delineated the Marxist and left-anarchist positions quite well: "Bakunin maintains that it is the state which has created capital, that the capitalist has his capital only by the grace of the state. As, therefore, the state is the chief evil, it is above all the state which must be done away with and then capitalism will go to blazes of itself. We, on the contrary, say: Do away with capital, the concentration of the means of production in the hands of the few, and the state will fall of itself." The left-anarchist would probably accept this as a fair assessment of their disagreement with the Marxists, but point out how in many historical cases since (and before) Marx's time governments have steered their countries towards very different aims and policies, whereas capitalists are often fairly adaptive and passive.
- The minarchists' attack on anarcho-capitalismAyn Rand
Probably the earliest minarchist attack on anarcho- capitalism may be found in Ayn Rand's essay "The Nature of Government." ("Minarchism" designates the advocacy of a "minimal" or nightwatchman state, supplying only police, courts, a legal system, and national defense.) Her critique contained four essential arguments. The first essentially repeated Hobbes' view that society without government would collapse into violent chaos. The second was that anarcho-capitalist police firms would turn to war as soon as a dispute broke out between individuals employing different protection agencies: "[S]uppose Mr. Smith, a customer of Government A, suspects that his next-door neighbor, Mr. Jones, a customer of Government B, has robbed him; a squad of Police A proceeds to Mr. Jones' house and is met at the door by a squad of Police B, who declare that they do not recognize the authority of Government A. What happens then? You take it from there." Her third argument was that anarcho-capitalism was an expression of an irrational subjectivist epistemology which would allow each person to decide for himself or herself whether the use of physical force was justified. Finally, her fourth argument was that anarcho-capitalism would lack an objective legal code (meaning, presumably, both publicly known and morally valid).Roy Childs
Rand's arguments were answered at length in Roy Childs' "Objectivism and the State: An Open Letter to Ayn Rand," which tried to convince her that only the anarcho-capitalist position was consistent with her view that the initiation of force was immoral. In brief, Childs argued that like other free-market institutions, private police would have economic incentives to perform their tasks peacefully and efficiently: police would negotiate arbitration agreements in advance precisely to avoid the kind of stand-off that Rand feared, and an objective legal code could be developed by free-market judges. Childs strongly contested Rand's claim that anarcho-capitalism had any relation to irrationalism; an individual could be rational or irrational in his judgment to use defensive violence, just as a government could be rational or irrational in its judgment to do so. As Childs queried, "By what epistemological criterion is an individual's action classified as 'arbitrary,' while that of a group of individuals is somehow 'objective'?"Robert Nozick
Robert Nozick launched the other famous attempt to refute the anarcho-capitalist on libertarian grounds. Basically, Nozick argued that the supply of police and legal services was a geographic natural monopoly, and that therefore a state would emerge by the "invisible hand" processes of the market itself. The details of his argument are rather complex: Nozick postulated a right, strongly contested by other libertarians, to prohibit activities which were exceptionally risky to others; he then added that the persons whose actions were so prohibited were entitled to compensation. Using these two principles, Nozick claimed that the dominant protection agency in a region could justifiably prohibit competition on the grounds that it was "too risky," and therefore become an "ultra-minimal state." But at this point, it would be obligated to compensate consumers who were prohibited from purchasing competitors' services, so it would do so in kind by giving them access to its own police and legal services -- thereby becoming a minimal state. And none of these steps, according to Nozick, violates libertarian rights.
There have been literally dozens of anarchist attacks on Nozick's derivation of the minimal state. To begin with, no state arose in the manner Nozick describes, so all existing states are illegitimate and still merit abolition. Secondly, anarcho-capitalists dispute Nozick's assumption that defense is a natural monopoly, noting that the modern security guard and arbitration industries are extremely decentralized and competitive. Finally, they reject Nozick's principles of risk and compensation, charging that they lead directly to the despotism of preventive law.
- The conservative critique of anarchismEdmund Burke
The conservative critique of anarchism is much less developed, but can be teased out of the writings of such authors as Edmund Burke, Russell Kirk, and Ernest van den Haag. (Interestingly, Burke scholars are still debating whether the early Burke's quasi-anarchistic A Vindication of Natural Society was a serious work or a subtle satire.)
Burke would probably say that, like other radical ideologues, the anarchists place far too much reliance on their imperfect reason and not enough on the accumulated wisdom of tradition. Society functions because we have gradually evolved a system of workable rules. It seems certain that Burke would apply his critique of the French revolutionaries with equal force to the anarchists: "They have no respect for the wisdom of others; but they pay it off by a very full measure of confidence in their own. With them it is a sufficient motive to destroy an old scheme of things, because it is an old one. As to the new, they are in no sort of fear with regard to the duration of a building run up in haste; because duration is no object to those who think little or nothing has been done before their time, and who place all their hopes in discovery." To attempt to replace the wisdom of the ages with a priori theories of justice is sure to lead to disaster, because functional policies must be judicious compromises between important competing ends. Or in Burke's words, "The science of constructing a commonwealth, or renovating it, or reforming it, is, like every other experimental science, not to be taught a priori. Nor is it a short experience that can instruct us in that practical science; because the real effects of moral causes are not always immediate." The probable result of any attempt to realize anarchist principles would be a brief period of revolutionary zeal, followed by chaos and social breakdown resulting from the impracticality of the revolutionary policies, and finally ending in a brutal dictator winning widespread support by simply restoring order and rebuilding the people's sense of social stability.
Many anarchists would in fact accept Burke's critique of violent revolution, which is why they favor advancing their views gradually through education and nonviolent protest. In fact, Bakunin's analysis of Marxism as the ideology (i.e., rationalization for the class interests of) middle-class intellectuals in fact differs little from Burke's analysis: Bakunin, like Burke, perceived that no matter how oppressive the current system may be, there are always power-hungry individuals who favor violent revolution as their most practical route to absolute power. Their protests against actual injustices must be seen in light of their ultimate aim of imposing even more ruthless despotism upon the people.
On other issues, anarchists would disagree strongly with several of Burke's claims. Many forms of misery stem from the blind adherence to tradition; and rational thinking has sparked countless improvements in human society ever since the decline of traditional despotism. Moreover, anarchists do not propose to do away with valuable traditions, but simply request evidence that particular traditions are valuable before they lend them their support. And what is to be done when -- as is usually the case -- a society harbors a wide range of mutually incompatible traditions?
Anarchists might also object that the Burkean analysis relies too heavily upon tradition as a result rather than a process. Cultural evolution may constantly weed out foolish ideas and practices, but it hardly follows that such follies have already perished; for the state to defend tradition is to strangle the competitive process which tends to make tradition sensible. As Vincent Cook explains: "[I]t is precisely because wisdom has to be accumulated in incremental steps that it cannot be centrally planned by any single political or religious authority, contrary to the aspirations of conservatives and collectivists alike. While the collectivists are indeed guilty of trying to rationalistically reconstruct society in defiance of tradition (a valid criticism of left-anarchists), conservatives on the other hand are guilty of trying to freeze old traditions in place. Conservatives have forgotten that the process of wisdom accumulation is an on-going one, and instead have opted for the notion that some existing body of traditions (usually Judeo-Christian) already represent social perfection."Russell Kirk
Russell Kirk, noted Burke scholar, has written a brief critique of the modern libertarian movement. (Another conservative, Ernest van den Haag, wrote a lengthier essay with a similar theme and perspective.) In all likelihood, Kirk would apply many (but not all) of the same arguments to left-anarchists.
Kirk faults the libertarians (and when he discusses "libertarians" he usually seems to have the anarcho- capitalists in mind) on at least six counts. First, they deny the existence of a "transcendent moral order." Second, order is prior to liberty, and liberty is possible only after government establishes a constitutional order. Third, libertarians assume that self-interest is the only possible social bond, ignoring the broader communitarian vision of human nature found in both the Aristotelian and Judeo- Christian traditions. Fourth, libertarians erroneously assume that human beings are naturally good or at least perfectible. Fifth, the libertarian foolishly attacks the state as such, rather than merely its abuses. Sixth and last, the libertarian is an arrogant egoist who disregards valuable ancient beliefs and customs.
Left-anarchists would perhaps agree with Kirk on points three and six. So if Kirk were to expand his attack on anarchism to encompass the left-anarchists as well, he might acquit them of these two charges. The remaining four, however, Kirk would probably apply equally to anarchists of both varieties.
How would anarchists reply to Kirk's criticisms? On the "moral transcendence" issue, they would point out there have been religious as well as non-religious anarchists; and moreover, many non-religious anarchists still embrace moral objectivism (notably anarchists in the broader natural law tradition). Most anarchists would deny that they make self- interest the only possible social bond; and even those who would affirm this (such as anarcho-capitalists influenced by Ayn Rand) have a broad conception of self-interest consistent with the Aristotelian tradition.
As to the priority of order over liberty, many anarchists influenced by e.g. Kropotkin would reply that as with other animal species, order and cooperation emerge as a result, not a consequence of freedom; while anarcho- capitalists would probably refer Kirk to the theorists of "spontaneous order" such as Hayek, Hume, Smith, and even Edmund Burke himself.
The FAQ addresses the questions of human perfectibility and utopianism in sections 20 and 21. As for Kirk's final point, most anarchists would reply that they happily accept valuable customs and traditions, but believe that they have shown that some ancient practices and institutions -- above all, the state --have no value whatever.
- "We are already in a state of anarchy."
Under anarchy, it is conceivable that e.g. a brutal gang might use its superior might to coerce everyone else to do as they wish. With nothing more powerful than the gang, there would (definitionally) be nothing to stop them. But how does this differ from what we have now? Governments rule because they have the might to maintain their power; in short, because there is no superior agency to restrain them. Hence, reason some critics of anarchism, the goal of anarchists is futile because we are already in a state of anarchy.
This argument is confused on several levels.
First, it covertly defines anarchy as unrestrained rule of the strongest, which is hardly what most anarchists have in mind. (Moreover, it overlooks the definitional differences between government and other forms of organized aggression; Max Weber in particular noted that governments claim a monopoly over the legitimate use of force in a given geographical region.) In fact, while anarchism is logically compatible with any viewpoint which rejects the existence of the state, there have been extremely few (perhaps no) anarchists who combined their advocacy of anarchism with support for domination by those most skilled in violence.
Second, it seems to assume that all that particular anarchists advocate is the abolition of the state; but as we have seen, anarchism is normally combined with additional normative views about what ought to replace the state. Thus, most anarchist theorists believe more than merely that the state should not exist; they also believe that e.g. society should be based upon voluntary communes, or upon strict private property rights, etc.
Third, the argument sometimes confuses a definitional with a causal claim. It is one thing to argue that anarchy would lead to the rule by the strongest; this is a causal claim about the likely results of the attempt to create an anarchist society. It is another thing entirely to argue that anarchy means rule by the strongest. This is simply a linguistic confusion, best illustrated by noting that under this definition anarchy and the state are logically compatible.
A related but more sophisticated argument, generally leveled against anarcho- capitalists, runs as follows. If competing protection agencies could prevent the establishment of an abusive, dominant firm, while don't they do so now? In short, if market checks against the abuse of power actually worked, we wouldn't have a state in the first place.
There are two basic replies to this argument. First of all, it completely ignores the ideological factor. Anarcho- capitalists are thinking of how competing firms would prevent the rise of abusive protection monopolists in a society where most people don't support the existence of such a monopolist. It is one thing to suppress a "criminal firm" when it stands condemned by public opinion and the values internalized by that firm's employees; it is another thing entirely to suppress our current "criminal firms" (i.e., governments) when qua institution enjoy the overwhelming support of the populace and the state's enforcers believe in their own cause. When a governing class loses confidence in its own legitimacy -- from the Ancien Regime in France to the Communist Party in the USSR -- it becomes vulnerable and weak. Market checks on government could indeed establish an anarchist society if the self-confidence of the governing class were severely eroded by anarchist ideas.
Secondly, the critique ignores the possibility of multiple social equilibria. If everyone drives on the right side of the road, isolated attempts to switch to the left side will be dangerous and probably unsuccessful. But if everyone drives on the left side of the road, the same danger exists for those who believe that the right side is superior and plan to act on their believe. Similarly, it is quite possible that given that a government exists, the existence of government is a stable equilibrium; but if a system of competitive protection firms existed, that too would be a stable equilibrium. In short, just because one equilibrium exists and is stable doesn't mean that it is the only possible equilibrium. Why then is the state so pervasive if it is just one possible equilibrium? The superiority of this equilibrium is one possible explanation; but it could also be due to ideology, or an inheritance from our barbarous ancestors.
- Why should one consider anarchism in the first place?
For the emotivist anarchist, opposition to the state is just a special case of his or her opposition to almost everything: the family, traditional art, bourgeois culture, comfortable middle-aged people, the British monarchy, etc. This position, when articulated, is often difficult to understand, for it seems to seek destruction without any suggestion or argument that anything else would be preferable. Closely linked to emotivist anarchism, though sometimes a little more theoretical, is nihilist anarchism. The anarcho-nihilists combine the emotivist's opposition to virtually all forms of order with radical subjectivist moral and epistemological theory.
To see Tracy Harms' criticism of my treatment of Stirner, egoism, and nihilism, click here.
Related to emotivist anarchism is a second strand of less intellectual, more emotional anarchist thought. It has been called by some "moral anarchism." This view again feels that existing statist society is bad; but rather than lay out any comprehensive plans for its abolition, this sort of anarchist sticks to more immediate reforms. Anarchism of this sort is a kind of ideal dream, which is beautiful and inspiring to contemplate while we pursue more concrete aims.
The emotivist anarchist often focuses on action and disdains theorizing. In contrast, another breed of anarchists, known as "philosophical anarchists," see few practical implications of their intellectual position. Best represented by Robert Paul Wolff, philosophical anarchism simply denies that the state's orders as such can confer any legitimacy whatever. Each individual must exercise his moral autonomy to judge right and wrong for himself, irrespective of the state's decrees. However, insofar as the state's decrees accord with one's private conscience, there is no need to change one's behavior. A position like Wolff's says, in essence, that the rational person cannot and must not offer the blind obedience to authority that governments often seem to demand; but this insight need not spark any political action if one's government's decrees are not unusually immoral.
Yet another faction, strongly influenced by Leo Tolstoy, refer to themselves as "Christian anarchists." (Tolstoy avoided the term "anarchist," probably because of its association with violence and terrorism in the minds of contemporary Russians.) Drawing on the Gospels' themes of nonviolence and the equality of all human beings, these anarchists condemn government as contrary to Christian teaching. Tolstoy particularly emphasized the immorality of war, military service, and patriotism, challenging Christians to live up to the radical implications of their faith by withdrawing their support from all three of these evils. Tolstoy's essay "Patriotism, or Peace?" is particularly notable for its early attack upon nationalism and the bloodshed that usually accompanies it.
Finally, many leftist and progressive movements have an anarchist interpretation and anarchist advocates. For example, a faction of feminists, calling themselves "anarcha- feminists" exists.
Doubtlessly there are many other fusions between anarchism and progressive causes, and more spring up as new concerns develop.
Again, there are a great many answers which have been offered. Some anarchists, such as the emotivist and (paradoxically) the moral anarchists have little interest in high-level moral theory. But this has been of great interest to the more intellectual sorts of anarchists.
One popular argument for anarchism is that it is the only way for true socialism to exist. State-socialism is unable to actually establish human equality; instead it simply creating a new ruling class. Bakunin prophetically predicted the results of socialists seizing control of the state when he wrote that the socialist elite would form a "new class" which would be "the most aristocratic, despotic, arrogant, and contemptuous of all regimes." Elsewhere Bakunin wrote that "[F]reedom without Socialism is privilege and injustice, ... Socialism without freedom is slavery and brutality." Of course, socialism itself has been defended on both deontological and utilitarian grounds, and there is no need to repeat these here.
On the other hand, anarcho-capitalists have argued that only under anarchism can the Lockean rights to person and property so loudly championed by more moderate libertarians be fully respected. Any attempt to impose a monopolistic government necessarily prevents competing police and judicial services from providing a legitimate service; moreover, so long as government exists taxation will persist. The government's claim to defend private property is thus quite ironic, for the state, in Rothbard's words, is "an institution that presumes to 'defend' person and property by itself subsisting on the unilateral coercion against private property known as taxation." Other anarcho- capitalists such as David Friedman find these arguments from natural Lockean rights unconvincing, and instead take up the task of trying to show that Adam Smith's utilitarian case for free-market capitalism applies just as well to free markets in defense services, making the state useless as well as dangerous.
Still other anarchists, such as Lysander Spooner and Benjamin Tucker as well as Proudhon, have argued that anarchism would abolish the exploitation inherent in interest and rent simply by means of free competition. In their view, only labor income is legitimate, and an important piece of the case for anarchism is that without government-imposed monopolies, non-labor income would be driven to zero by market forces. It is unclear, however, if they regard this as merely a desirable side effect, or if they would reject anarchism if they learned that the predicted economic effect thereof would not actually occur. (Other individualist anarchists have argued that contrary to Spooner and Tucker, free banking would lead to a much lower rate of inflation than we experience today; that rent and interest are not due to "monopoly" but to scarcity of land and loanable funds; and that there is no moral distinction between labor and rental or interest income, all of which depend upon a mixture of scarcity, demand, luck, and effort.)
A basic moral intuition that probably anarchists of all varieties share is simply that no one has the right to rule another person. The interpretation of "rulership," however, varies: left anarchists tend to see the employer-employee relationship as one of rulership, and anarcho-capitalists are often dubious of the claim that envisaged anarchists communes would be democratic and hence voluntary. A closely related moral intuition, again widely shared by all sorts of anarchists, is that each person should exercise personal autonomy, or self-rule. One should question authority, and make up one's mind for oneself rather than simply following the herd. Again, the interpretation of "personal autonomy" varies: the left-anarchist sees the employer-employee relationship as inherently violating personal autonomy, whereas the anarcho-capitalist is more likely to see personal autonomy disappearing in the commune or collective, regardless of how democratically they run themselves.
Without a doubt, the most repeated debate among modern anarchists is fought between the left-anarchists on one side and the anarcho-capitalists on the other. Of course, there are occasional debates between different left-anarchist factions, but probably most of them would be content with an anarchist society populated by some mixture of communes, worker-controlled firms, and cooperatives. And similarly there are a few internal debates between anarcho- capitalists, notably the tension between Rothbard's natural law anarcho-capitalism and David Friedman's more economistic anarcho-capitalism. But it is the debate between the left-anarchists and the anarcho-capitalists which is the most fundamental and the most acrimonious. There are many sub-debates within this wider genre, which we will now consider.
- "X is not 'true anarchism.'"
One of the least fruitful of these sub-debates is the frequent attempt of one side to define the other out of existence ("You are not truly an anarchist, for anarchists must favor [abolition of private property, atheism, Christianity, etc.]") In addition to being a trivial issue, the factual supporting arguments are often incorrect. For example, despite a popular claim that socialism and anarchism have been inextricably linked since the inception of the anarchist movement, many 19th-century anarchists, not only Americans such as Tucker and Spooner, but even Europeans like Proudhon, were ardently in favor of private property (merely believing that some existing sorts of property were illegitimate, without opposing private property as such).Pierre Proudhon
As Benjamin Tucker wrote in 1887, "It will probably surprise many who know nothing of Proudhon save his declaration that 'property is robbery' to learn that he was perhaps the most vigorous hater of Communism that ever lived on this planet. But the apparent inconsistency vanishes when you read his book and find that by property he means simply legally privileged wealth or the power of usury, and not at all the possession by the laborer of his products."
Nor did an ardent anarcho-communist like Kropotkin deny Proudhon or even Tucker the title of "anarchist." In his Modern Science and Anarchism, Kropotkin discusses not only Proudhon but "the American anarchist individualists who were represented in the fifties by S.P. Andrews and W. Greene, later on by Lysander Spooner, and now are represented by Benjamin Tucker, the well-known editor of the New York Liberty." Similarly in his article on anarchism for the 1910 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, Kropotkin again freely mentions the American individualist anarchists, including "Benjamin Tucker, whose journal Liberty was started in 1881 and whose conceptions are a combination of those of Proudhon with those of Herbert Spencer."
- "Anarchism of variant X is unstable and will lead to the re-emergence of the state."
A more substantive variation is to argue that the opposing anarchism would be unstable and lead to the swift re- emergence of government. Thus, the left-anarchists often argue that the defense corporations envisaged by anarcho- capitalists would war with one another until one came out as the new government; or else they would collude to establish themselves as the new capitalist oligarchs. As Noam Chomsky says in an interview with Ulrike Heider, "The predatory forces of the market would destroy society, would destroy community, and destroy the workforce. Nothing would be left except people hating each other and fighting each other." Anarcho-capitalists reply that this grossly underestimates the degree of competition likely to prevail in the defense industry; that war is likely to be very unprofitable and dangerous, and is more likely to be provoked by ideology than sober profit-maximization; and that economic theory and economic history show that collusion is quite difficult to maintain.
Anarcho-capitalists for their part accuse the left-anarchists of intending to impose their communal vision upon everyone; since everyone will not go along voluntarily, a government will be needed to impose it. Lest we think that this argument is a recent invention, it is interesting to find that essentially this argument raged in the 19th- century anarchist movement as well. In John MacKay's The Anarchists, we see the essential dialogue between individualist and collectivist anarchism has a longer history than one might think:
"Would you, in the system of society which you call 'free Communism' prevent individuals from exchanging their labor among themselves by means of their own medium of exchange? And further: Would you prevent them from occupying land for the purpose of personal use?"... [The] question was not to be escaped. If he answered "Yes!" he admitted that society had the right of control over the individual and threw overboard the autonomy of the individual which he had always zealously defended; if on the other hand he answered "No!" he admitted the right of private property which he had just denied so emphatically ... Then he answered "In Anarchy any number of men must have the right of forming a voluntary association, and so realizing their ideas in practice. Nor can I understand how any one could justly be driven from the land and house which he uses and occupies ... [E]very serious man must declare himself: for Socialism, and thereby for force and against liberty, or for Anarchism, and thereby for liberty and against force."
There have been several left-anarchist replies. One is to readily agree that dissenters would have the right to not join a commune, with the proviso that they must not employ others or otherwise exploit them. Another is to claim that anarchism will change (or cease to warp) human attitudes so that they will be more communitarian and less individualistic. Finally, some argue that this is simply another sophistical argument for giving the rich and powerful the liberty to take away the liberty of everyone else.
- "In an anarchist society in which both systems X and Y existed, X would inevitably outcompete Y."
Again, this argument has been made from several perspectives. Left-anarchists have argued that if workers had the genuine option to work for a capitalist employer, or else work for themselves in a worker cooperative, virtually all workers would choose the latter. Moreover, workers in a worker-managed firm would have higher morale and greater incentive to work hard compared with workers who just worked for the benefit of their employer. Hence, capitalists would be unable to pay their workers wages competitive with the wages of the labor-managed firm, and by force of competition would gradually vanish.
Anarcho-capitalists find that the argument works in precisely the opposite direction. For what is a worker-owned firm if not a firm in which the workers jointly hold all of the stock? Now this is a peculiarly irrational portfolio to hold, because it means that workers would, in effect, put all their eggs in one basket; if their firm does well, they grow rich, but if their firm goes bankrupt, they lose everything. It would make much more sense for workers to exchange their shares in their own firm to buy shares in other firms in order to insure themselves against risk. Thus, the probable result of worker-owned firms with negotiable shares would be that workers would readily and advantageously sell off most of their shares in their own firm in order to diversify their portfolios. The end result is likely to be the standard form of capitalist organization, in which workers receive a fixed payment for their services and the owners of the firms' shares earn the variable profits. Of course, alienation of shares could be banned, but this appears to do nothing except force workers to live with enormous financial risk. None of this shows that worker-owned firms could not persist if the workers were so ideologically committed to worker control that their greater productivity outweighed the riskiness of the workers' situation; but anarcho-capitalists doubt very much that such intense ideology would prevail in more than a small portion of the population. Indeed, they expect that the egalitarian norms and security from dismissal that left-anarchists typically favor would grossly undermine everyone's incentive to work hard and kill abler workers' desire for advancement.
Some anarcho-capitalists go further and argue that inequality would swiftly re-emerge in an anarcho-syndicalist economy. Workers would treat their jobs as a sort of property right, and would refuse to hire new workers on equal terms because doing so would dilute the current workers' shares in the firm's profits. The probable result would be that an elite class of workers in capital-intensive firms would exploit new entrants into the work force much as capitalists allegedly do today. As evidence, they point to existing "worker-controlled" firms such as law firms -- normally they consist of two tiers of workers, one of which both works and owns the firm ("the partners"), while the remainder are simply employees ("the associates" as well as the secretaries, clerks, etc.)
- "Anarchism of type X would be worse than the state."
To the left-anarchist, the society envisaged by the anarcho- capitalists often seems far worse than what we have now. For it is precisely to the inequality, exploitation, and tyranny of modern capitalism that they object, and rather than abolishing it the anarcho-capitalist proposes to unleash its worst features and destroy its safety net. Noam Chomsky, for instance, has suggested that anarcho-capitalists focus incorrectly on state domination, failing to recognize the underlying principle of opposition to all domination, including the employer-employee relationship. Overall, since anarcho-capitalism relies heavily on laissez-faire economic theory, and since left-anarchists see no validity to laissez-faire economic theory, it seems to the latter that anarcho-capitalism would be a practical disaster. Left- anarchists often equate anarcho-capitalism with social Darwinism and even fascism, arguing that the cruel idea of "survival of the fittest" underlies them all.
The anarcho-capitalist, in turn, often suspects that the left- anarchist's world would be worse than the world of today. Under anarcho-capitalism, individuals would still have every right to voluntarily pool their property to form communes, worker-controlled firms, and cooperatives; they would simply be unable to force dissenters to join them. Since this fact rarely impresses the left-anarchist, the anarcho-capitalist often concludes that the left-anarchist will not be satisfied with freedom for his preferred lifestyle; he wants to force his communal lifestyle on everyone. Not only would this be a gross denial of human freedom, but it would (according to the anarcho-capitalist) be likely to have disastrous effects on economic incentives, and swiftly lead humanity into miserable poverty. The anarcho-capitalist is also frequently disturbed by the opposition to all order sometimes voiced by left-anarchists; for he feels that only coerced order is bad and welcomes the promotion of an orderly society by voluntary means. Similarly, the left-anarchists' occasional short time horizon, emphasis on immediate satisfaction, and low regard for work (which can be seen in a number of authors strongly influenced by emotivist anarchism) frighten the anarcho-capitalist considerably.
A large number of arguments that go back and forth basically duplicate the standard socialist vs. capitalist debate. The need or lack thereof for incentives, security, equality, regulation, protection of the environment, and so on are debated extensively on other sources on the Net, and there are several FAQs which discuss these issues from a variety of viewpoints. FAQs on the broader libertarian movement are frequently posted on alt.individualism, alt.politics.libertarian, and talk.politics.libertarian. FAQs on socialism similarly appear from time to time on alt.politics.radical-left and alt.fan.noam-chomsky. Related FAQs sometimes appear on talk.politics.theory. Hence, we will spend no further space on these broader issues which are amply addressed elsewhere.
- "Anarchism of variant X is unstable and will lead to the re-emergence of the state."
Modern neoclassical (or "mainstream") economists -- especially those associated with theoretical welfare economics -- have several important arguments for the necessity or desirability of government. Out of all of these, the so-called "public goods" problem is surely the most frequently voiced. In fact, many academics consider it a rigorous justification for the existence and limits of the state. Anarcho-capitalists are often very familiar with this line of thought and spend considerable time trying to refute it; left- anarchists are generally less interested, but it is still useful to see how the left-anarchist might respond.
We will begin by explaining the concept of Pareto optimality, show how the Pareto criterion is used to justify state action, and then examine how anarchists might object to the underlying assumptions of these economic justifications for the state. After exploring the general critique, we will turn to the problem of public goods (and the closely related externalities issue). After showing how many economists believe that these problems necessitate government action, we will consider how left-anarchists and anarcho-capitalists might reply.
- The concept and uses of Pareto optimality in economics
The most widely-used concept in theoretical welfare economics is "Pareto optimality" (also known as "Pareto efficiency"). An allocation is Pareto-optimal iff it is impossible to make at least one person better off without making anyone else worse off; a Pareto improvement is a change in an allocation which makes someone better off without making anyone else worse off. As Hal Varian's Microeconomic Analysis explains, "[A] Pareto efficient allocation is one for which each agent is as well off as possible, given the utilities of the other agents." "Better" and "worse" are based purely upon subjective preferences which can be summarized in a "utility function," or ordinal numerical index of preference satisfaction.
While initially it might seem that every situation is necessarily Pareto optimal, this is not the case. True, if the only good is food, and each agent wants as much food as possible, then every distribution is Pareto optimal. But if half of the agents own food and the other half own clothes, the distribution will not necessarily be Pareto optimal, since each agent might prefer either more food and fewer clothes or vice versa.
Normally, economists would expect agents to voluntarily trade in any situation which is not Pareto optimal; but neoclassical theorists have considered a number of situations in which trade would be a difficult route to Pareto optimality. For example, suppose that each agent is so afraid of the other that they avoid each other, even though they could both benefit from interaction. What they need is an independent and powerful organization to e.g. protect both agents from each other so that they can reach a Pareto-optimal allocation. What they need, in short, is the state. While economists' examples are usually more elaborate, the basic intuition is that government is necessary to satisfy the seemingly uncontroversial principle of Pareto optimality.
Anarchists of all sorts would immediately object that the very existence of deontological anarchists shows that Pareto optimality can never justify state action. If even the slightest increase in the level of state activity incompensably harms the deontological anarchist, then obviously it is never true that state action can make some people better off without making any others worse off. Moreover, virtually all government action makes some people better off and other people worse off, so plainly the pursuit of Pareto improvements has little to do with what real governments do.Richard Posner
Due to these difficulties, in practice economists must base their judgments upon the far more controversial judgments of cost-benefit analysis. (In the works of Richard Posner, this economistic cost-benefit approach to policy decisions is called "wealth-maximization"; a common synonym is "Kaldor-Hicks efficiency.") With cost-benefit analysis, there is no pretense made that government policy enjoys unanimous approval. Thus, it is open to the many objections frequently made to e.g. utilitarianism; moreover, since cost-benefit analysis is based upon agents' willingness to pay, rather than on agents' utility, it runs into even more moral paradoxes than utilitarianism typically does.
In the final analysis, welfare economists' attempt to provide a value-free or at least value-minimal justification of the state fails quite badly. Nevertheless, economic analysis may still inform more substantive moral theories: Pareto optimality, for example, is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a utilitarian justification of the state.
- The public goods problem
The "public goods" argument is certainly the most popular economic argument for the state. It allegedly shows that the existence of government can be Pareto optimal, and that the non-existence of the state cannot be Pareto optimal; or at least, it shows that the existence of government is justifiable on cost-benefit grounds. Supposedly, there exist important services, such as national defense, which benefit people whether they pay for them or not. The result is that selfish agents refuse to contribute, leading to disaster. The only way to solve this problem is to coerce the beneficiaries to raise the funds to supply the needed good. In order for this coercion to work, it needs to be monopolized by a single agency, the state.
Public goods arguments have been made not only for national defense, but for police, roads, education, R&D, scientific research, and many other goods and services. The essential definitional feature of public goods is "non- excludability"; because the benefits cannot be limited to contributors, there is no incentive to contribute. (A second definitional characteristic often attributed to public goods is "non-rivalrousness"; my own view is that this second attribute just confuses the issue, since without the non- excludability problem, non-rivalrousness would merely be another instance of the ubiquitous practice of pricing above marginal cost.)
The concept of externalities is very closely connected to the concept of public goods; the main difference is that economists usually think of externalities as being both "positive" (e.g. R&D spill-overs) and "negative" (e.g. pollution), whereas they usually don't discuss "public bads." In any case, again we have the problem that agents perform actions which harm or benefit other people, and the harm/benefit is "non-excludable." Victims of negative externalities can't feasibly charge polluters a fee for suffering, and beneficiaries of positive externalities can't feasibly be charged for their enjoyment. Government is supposed to be necessary to correct this inefficiency. (As usual, it is the inefficiency rather than the injustice that economists focus upon.)
Left-anarchists and anarcho-capitalists would probably have remarkably similar replies to this argument, although doubtlessly the tone and emphasis would vary.
Objection #1: The behavorial assumptions of public goods theory are false.
It is simply not true that people always act in their narrow self-interest. Charity exists, and there is no reason to think that the charitable impulse might not be cultivated to handle public goods problems voluntarily on an adequate basis. Nor need charity as such be the only motive: in Social Contract, Free Ride, Anthony de Jasay lays out an "ethics turnpike" of possible voluntary solutions to serious public goods problems, moving from motivation from high moral principles, to "tribal" motivations, to economic motivations. As de Jasay writes, "On the map of the Ethics Turnpike ... three main segments are marked off according to the basic type of person most likely to find his congenial exit along it. The first segment is primarily for the type who fears God or acts as if he did. The second segment has exits to suit those who are not indifferent to how some or all their fellow men are faring, and who value only that (but not all that) which people want for themselves or for others. The third is for homo oeconomicus, maximizing a narrowly defined utility that varies only with the money's worth of his own payoffs."
In short, much of the public goods problem is an artificial creation of economists' unrealistic assumptions about human nature. Anarchists would surely disagree among themselves about human nature, but almost all would agree that there is more to the human character than Hobbesian self-interest. Some people may be amoral, but most are not. Moreover, charitable impulses can even give incentives to uncharitable people to behave fairly. If the public boycotts products of polluters, the polluters may find that it is cheaper to clean up their act than lose the public's business.
Interestingly, many economists have experimentally tested the predictions of public goods theory. (Typically, these experiments involve groups of human subjects playing for real money.) The almost universal result is that the central prediction of public goods theory (i.e., that no one will voluntarily contribute to the production of a public good) is totally false. While the level of contributions rarely equals the Pareto-optimal level, it never even approaches the zero- provision level that public goods theory predicts. Summarizing the experimental literature, Douglas Davis and Charles Holt write "[S]ubjects rather persistently contributed 40 to 60 percent of their token endowments to the group exchange, far in excess of the 0 percent contributions rate..." Subsequent experiments examined the conditions under which voluntary provision is most successful; see Davis and Holt's Experimental Economics for details.
Objection #2: Government is not the only possible way to provide public goods.
Even if individuals act in their narrow self-interest, it is not true that government is the only way to manage public goods and externalities problems. Why couldn't a left- anarchist commune or an anarcho-capitalist police firm do the job that the neoclassical economist assumes must be delegated to the government? The left-anarchist would probably be particularly insistent on this point, since most economists usually assume that government and the market are the only ways to do things. But thriving, voluntary communities might build roads, regulate pollution, and take over other important tasks now handled by government.
Anarcho-capitalists, for their part, would happily agree: while they usually look to the market as a first solution, they appreciate other kinds of voluntary organizations too: fraternal societies, clubs, family, etc. But anarcho-capitalists would probably note that left-anarchists overlook the ways that the market might take over government services -- indeed, malls and gated communities show how roads, security, and externalities can be handled by contract rather than coercion.
Objection #3: Public goods are rarer than you might think.
Anarcho-capitalists would emphasize that a large number of alleged "public goods" and "externalities" could easily be handled privately by for-profit business if only the government would allow the definition of private property rights. If ranchers over-graze the commons, why not privatize the commons? If fishermen over-fish the oceans, why not parcel out large strips of the ocean by longitude and latitude to for profit-making aquaculture? And why is education supposed to create externalities any more than any other sort of investment? Similarly, many sorts of externalities are now handled with private property rights. Tort law, for example, can give people an incentive to take the lives and property of others into account when they take risks.
Objection #4: Externalities are a result of the profit-oriented mentality which would be tamed in an anarchist society.
Left-anarchists would emphasize that many externalities are caused by the profit-seeking system which the state supports. Firms pollute because it is cheaper than producing cleanly; but anarcho-syndicalist firms could pursue many aims besides profit. In a way, the state- capitalist system creates the problem of externalities by basing all decisions upon profit, and then claims that we need the state to protect us from the very results of this profit-oriented decision-making process.
While few left-anarchists are familiar with the experimental economics literature, it offers some support for this general approach. In particular, many experiments have shown that subjects' concern for fairness weakens many of the harsh predictions of standard economic analysis of externalities and bargaining.
Objection #5: The public goods problem is unavoidable.Thomas Paine
Perhaps most fundamentally: government is not a solution to the public goods problem, but rather the primary instance of the problem. If you create a government to solve your public goods problems, you merely create a new public goods problem: the public good of restraining and checking the government from abusing its power. "[I]t is wholly owing to the constitution of the people, and not to the constitution of the government, that the crown is not as oppressive in England as in Turkey," wrote Thomas Paine; but what material incentive is there for individuals to help develop a vigilant national character? After all, surely it is a rare individual who appreciably affects the national culture during his or her lifetime.
To rely upon democracy as a counter-balance simply assumes away the public goods problem. After all, intelligent, informed voting is a public good; everyone benefits if the electorate reaches wise political judgments, but there is no personal, material incentive to "invest" in political information, since the same result will (almost certainly) happen whether you inform yourself or not. It should be no surprise that people know vastly more about their jobs than about their government. Many economists seem to be aware of this difficulty; in particular, public choice theory in economics emphasizes the externalities inherent in government action. But a double standard persists: while non-governmental externalities must be corrected by the state, we simply have to quietly endure the externalities inherent in political process.
Since there is no incentive to monitor the government, democracies must rely upon voluntary donations of intelligence and virtue. Because good government depends upon these voluntary donations, the public goods argument for government falls apart. Either unpaid virtue can make government work, in which case government isn't necessary to solve the public goods problem; or unpaid virtue is insufficient to make government work, in which case the government cannot be trusted to solve the public goods problem.David Friedman
David Friedman has a particularly striking argument which goes one step further. Under governmental institutions, he explains, good law is a public good and bad law is a private good. That is, there is little direct personal incentive to lobby for laws that benefit everyone, but a strong personal incentive to lobby for laws that benefit special interests at the expense of everyone else. In contrast, under anarcho-capitalist institutions, good law is a private good and bad law is a public good. That is, by patronizing a firm which protects oneself, one reinforces the existence of socially beneficial law; but there is little incentive to "lobby" for the re-introduction of government. As Friedman explains, "Good law is still expensive - I must spend time and money determining which protection agency will best serve me - but having decided what I want, I get what I pay for. The benefit of my wise purchase goes to me, so I have an incentive to purchase wisely. It is now the person who wishes to reintroduce government who is caught in a public goods problem. He cannot abolish anarchy and reintroduce government for himself alone; he must do it for everyone or for no one. If he does it for everyone, he himself gets but a tiny fraction of the 'benefit' he expects the reintroduction of government to provide."
- The public goods problem
Again, this is a complicated question because "pacifism" has at least two distinct meanings. It may mean "opposition to all violence," or it may mean "opposition to all war (i.e., organized violent conflict between governments)." Some anarchists are pacifists in the first sense; a very large majority of anarchists are pacifists in the weaker, second sense.
- Tolstoyan absolute pacifism
The primary anarchistic inspiration for pacifism in the first sense is probably Leo Tolstoy. Drawing his themes from the Gospels, Tolstoy argued that violence is always wrong, including defensive violence. This naturally leads Tolstoy to bitterly denounce warfare as well, but what is distinctive here is opposition to violence as such, whether offensive or defensive. Moreover, the stricture against defensive violence would appear to rule out not only retribution against criminals, but self-defense against an imminent attack.
This Tolstoyan theme appears most strongly in the writings of Christian anarchists and pacifist anarchists, but it pops up quite frequently within the broader left-anarchist tradition. For example, Kropotkin looked upon criminals with pity rather than contempt, and argued that love and forgiveness rather than punishment was the only moral reaction to criminal behavior. With the self-described Christian and pacifist anarchists, the Tolstoyan position is a firm conviction; within the broader left-anarchist tradition, it would be better described as a tendency or general attitude.
Some left-anarchists and virtually all anarcho-capitalists would strongly disagree with Tolstoy's absolute opposition to violence. (The only anarcho-capitalist to ever indicate agreement with the Tolstoyan position was probably Robert LeFevre.) Left-anarchist critics include the advocates of revolutionary terrorism or "propaganda by the deed" (discussed in section 22), as well as more moderate anti- Tolstoyans who merely uphold the right to use violence for self-defense. Of course, their definition of "self-defense" might very well include using violence to hinder immoral state actions or the functioning of the capitalist system.
The anarcho-capitalist critique of Tolstoyan pacifism is somewhat different. The anarcho-capitalist generally distinguishes between initiatory force against person or property (which he views as wrong), and retaliatory force (which he views as acceptable and possibly meritorious). The anarcho-capitalist condemns the state precisely because it institutionalizes the initiation of force within society. Criminals do the same, differing only in their lack of perceived legitimacy. In principle, both "private" criminals and the "public" criminals who run the government may be both resisted and punished. While it may be imprudent or counter-productive to openly resist state authority (just as it might be foolish to resist a gang of well- armed mobsters), there is a right to do so.
- Pacifism as opposition to war
Almost all anarchists, in contrast, would agree in their condemnation of warfare, i.e., violent conflict between governments. Left-anarchists and anarcho-capitalists both look upon wars as grotesque struggles between ruling elites who treat the lives of "their own" people as expendable and the lives of the "other side's" people as worthless. It is here that anarchism's strong distinction between society and the state becomes clearest: whereas most people see war as a struggle between societies, anarchists think that war is actually a battle between governments which greatly harms even the society whose government is victorious. What is most pernicious about nationalist ideology is that is makes the members of society identify their interests with those of their government, when in fact their interests are not merely different but in conflict. In short, anarchists of both sorts would readily accede to Randolph Bourne's remark that "War is the health of the state."Noam Chomsky
Left-anarchists' opposition to war is quite similar to the general condemnation of war expressed by more mainstream international socialists. On this view, war is created by capitalism, in particular the struggle for access to markets in the Third World. "Workingmen have no country" and should refuse to support these intra-capitalist struggles; why should they pay the dire cost of war when victory will merely leave them more oppressed and exploited than before? Moreover, while Western democracies often advocate war in the name of justice and humanitarianism, the aim and/or end result is to defend traditional authoritarianism and destroy the lives of millions of innocent people. Within the Western democracies, the left- anarchist's hatred for war is often intensified by some sense of sympathy for indigenous revolutionary movements. While these movements are often state-socialist in intent, the left- anarchist often believes that these movements are less bad than the traditional authoritarianism against which they struggle. Moreover, the West's policy of propping up local dictators leads relatively non-authoritarian socialist movements to increasing degrees of totalitarianism. Noam Chomsky is almost certainly the most influential representative of the left-anarchist approach to foreign policy: He sees a consistent pattern of the United States proclaiming devotion to human rights while supporting dictatorships by any means necessary.
The anarcho-capitalist critique of war is similar in many ways to e.g. Chomsky's analysis, but has a different lineage and emphasis. As can be seen particularly in Murray Rothbard's writings, the anarcho-capitalist view of war draws heavily upon both the anti-war classical liberals of the 18th and 19th centuries, and the long-standing American isolationist tradition. Early classical liberal theorists such as Adam Smith,Richard Cobden, and John Bright (and later Norman Angell) argued that warfare was caused by mercantilism, by the prevailing alliance between governments and their favored business elites. The solution, in their view, was to end the incestuous connection between business and government. The American isolationists were probably influenced by this broader classical liberal tradition, but placed more emphasis on the idea that foreign wars were at best a silly distraction, and at worst a rationalization for tyranny. Both views argued that "balance of power" politics lead inevitably to endless warfare and unrestrained military spending.
Building upon these two interrelated traditions, anarcho- capitalists have built a multi-layered attack upon warfare. Firstly, modern war particularly deserves moral condemnation (according to libertarian rights theory) for the widespread murderous attacks upon innocent civilians -- whether by bomb or starvation blockade. Secondly, the wars waged by the Western democracies in the 20th- century had disastrous, unforeseen consequences: World War I paved the way for Communist, fascist, and Nazi totalitarianism; and World War II, by creating power vacuums in Europe and Asia, turned over a billion human beings to Stalinist despotism. The anarcho-capitalist sees these results as predictable rather than merely accidental: just as rulers' hubris leads them to try to improve the free- market economy, only to find that in their ignorance they have wrecked terrible harm, so too does the "fatal conceit" of the national security advisor lead Western democracies to spend billions of dollars and millions of lives before he finds that he has inadvertently paved the way for totalitarianism. The anarcho-capitalist's third point against war is that its only sure result is to aid the domestic expansion of state power; and predictably, when wars end, the state's power never contracts to its original limits.
- Pacifism as opposition to war
There have probably been no societies which fully satisfy any anarchists' ethical ideals, but there have been a number of suggestive examples.
Left-anarchists most often cite the anarchist communes of the Spanish Civil War as examples of viable anarchist societies. The role of the Spanish anarchists in the Spanish Civil War has perhaps generated more debate on alt.society.anarchy than any other historical issue. Since this FAQ is concerned primarily with theoretical rather than purely historical questions, the reader will have to search elsewhere for a detailed discussion. Suffice it to say that left-anarchists generally believe that: (a) The Spanish anarchist political organizations and unions began and remained democratic throughout the war; (b) That a majority of the citizenry in areas controlled by the anarchists was sympathetic to the anarchist movement; (c) That workers directly controlled factories and businesses that they expropriated, rather than being subject to strict control by anarchist leaders; and (d) That the farm collectives in the anarchist-controlled regions were largely voluntary, and rarely exerted coercive pressure against small farmers who refused to join. In contrast, anarcho-capitalist critics such as James Donald normally maintain that: (a) The Spanish anarchist political organizations and unions, even if they were initially democratic, quickly transformed into dictatorial oligarchies with democratic trappings once the war started; (b) That the Spanish anarchists, even if they initially enjoyed popular support, quickly forfeited it with their abuse of power; (c) That in many or most cases, "worker" control meant dictatorial control by the anarchist elite; and (d) That the farm collectivizations in anarchist-controlled regions were usually coercively formed, totalitarian for their duration, and marked by a purely nominal right to remain outside the collective (since non-joining farmers were seriously penalized in a number of ways). For a reply to James Donald's piece, click here.
For my own account of the controversy regarding the Spanish Anarchists, see The Anarcho-Statists of Spain: An Historical, Economic, and Philosophical Analysis of Spanish Anarchism. For a reply to my piece, click here.
Israeli kibbutzim have also been admired as working examples of voluntary socialism. Kropotkin and Bakunin held up the mir, the traditional communal farming system in rural Russia, as suggestive of the organization and values which would be expressed in an anarchist society. Various experimental communities have also laid claim to socialist anarchist credentials.
Anarcho-capitalists' favorite example, in contrast, is medieval Iceland. David Friedman has written extensively on the competitive supply of defense services and anarchistic character of a much-neglected period of Iceland's history. Left-anarchists have occasionally criticized Friedman's work on medieval Iceland, but overall this debate is much sketchier than the debate over the Spanish Civil War. See Is Medieval Iceland an example of "anarcho"-capitalism working in practice?; for David Friedman's reply to an earlier draft of this piece , click here.
A long stretch of medieval Irish history has also been claimed to have pronounced anarcho-capitalist features. Other anarcho-capitalists have argued that the American "Wild West" offers an excellent illustration of anarcho-capitalist institutions springing up only to be later suppressed and crowded out by government. Anarcho- capitalists also often note that while the United States has never been an anarchist society by any stretch of the imagination, that before the 20th-century the United States came closer to their pure laissez-faire ideals than any other society in history. America's colonial and revolutionary period especially interests them. Murray Rothbard in particular published a four-volume history of the colonial and revolutionary eras, finding delight in a brief period of Pennsylvania's history when the state government virtually dissolved itself due to lack of interest. (An unpublished fifth volume in the series defended the "weak" Articles of Confederation against the strong, centralized state established by the U.S. Constitution
One case that has inspired both sorts of anarchists is that of the free cities of medieval Europe. The first weak link in the chain of feudalism, these free cities became Europe's centers of economic development, trade, art, and culture. They provided a haven for runaway serfs, who could often legally gain their freedom if they avoided re-capture for a year and a day. And they offer many examples of how people can form mutual-aid associations for protection, insurance, and community. Of course, left-anarchists and anarcho-capitalists take a somewhat different perspective on the free cities: the former emphasize the communitarian and egalitarian concerns of the free cities, while the latter point to the relatively unregulated nature of their markets and the wide range of services (often including defense, security, and legal services) which were provided privately or semi-privately. Kropotkin's Mutual Aid contains an extensive discussion of the free cities of medieval Europe; anarcho-capitalists have written less on the subject, but strongly praise the historical treatments in Henri Pirenne's Medieval Cities and Harold Berman's Law and Revolution.
The Enclopedia Brittanica article on Anarchism gives at best a cursory summary of anarchist theory, but does contain useful information on the history of left-anarchist political and labor movements. Click here to view the article.
Utopianism is perhaps the most popular criticism made of anarchism. In an atypically uncharitable passage in his European Socialism, socialist historian Carl Landauer states:
There is certainly one truth in anarchistic beliefs: Every large organization contains an element of veiled or open force, and every kind of force is an evil, if we consider its effects on the human character. But is it not the lesser evil? Can we dispense with force? When this question is clearly put, the case for anarchism seems extremely weak. It is true, that the experiment of an entirely forceless society have never been made. But such evidence as we have does not indicate that ill intentions will cease to exist if repressive force disappears, and it is clear enough that one ill-intentioned person can upset a large part of society if there is no repressive force. The fact that some intelligent and highly idealistic men and women have believed and still believe in anarchism shows that there is a type of sectarianism which accepts a belief in spite of, or perhaps because of, its apparent absurdity.
As we have seen, however, virtually all anarcho-capitalists and many left-anarchists accept the use of force in some circumstances. Landauer's remark would be better directed at absolute pacifists rather than anarchists in general.
Anarchists' supposed unwillingness to use force in any circumstance is only one reason why they have been widely perceived as utopian. Sometimes the utopian charge is trivial; if, for example, any radical change is labelled "utopian." If on the other hand "utopian" simply means that anarchism could work if and only if all people were virtuous, and thus in practice would lead to the imposition of new forms of oppression, then the question is more interesting. Interesting, because this is more or less the charge that different types of anarchists frequently bring against each other.
To the left-anarchist, for example, anarcho-capitalism is based upon a truly fantastic picture of economics, in which free competition somehow leads to prosperity and freedom for all. To them, the anarcho-capitalists' vision of "economic harmonies" and the workings of the "invisible hand" are at best unlikely, and probably impossible. Hence, in a sense they accuse the anarcho-capitalists of utopianism.
The anarcho-capitalists charge the left-anarchists similarly. For the latter imagine that somehow a communitarian society could exist without forcible repression of dissenting individualists; think that incentives for production would not be impaired by enforced equality; and confusedly equate local democracy with freedom. Moreover, they generally have no explanation for how crime would be prevented or what safeguards would prevent the rise of a new ruling elite. For the anarcho-capitalist, the left-anarchist is again hopelessly utopian.
But in any case, probably most anarchists would offer a similar reply to the charge that they are utopians. Namely: what is truly utopian is to imagine that somehow the government can hold massive power without turning it to monstrous ends. As Rothbard succinctly puts it:
The man who puts all the guns and all the decision-making power into the hands of the central government and then says, 'Limit yourself'; it is he who is truly the impractical utopian.Is not the whole history of the 20th century an endless list of examples of governments easily breaking the weak bonds placed upon their ability to oppress and even murder as they see fit?
This is a perfectly reasonable question, for it is indeed the case that some anarchists expect a remarkable change in human nature to follow (or precede?) the establishment of an anarchist society. This assumption partially explains the frequent lack of explanation of how an anarchist society would handle crime, dissenting individualists, and so on.
The belief in innate human virtue is normally found only among left-anarchist thinkers, but of course it does not follow, nor is it true, that all left-anarchist thinkers believe in humanity's innate human virtue.
Anarcho-capitalists have a very different picture of human nature. While they normally believe that people have a strong capacity for virtuous action (and it is to people's moral sense that they frequently appeal when they favor the abolition of the state), they believe that it is wise and necessary to cement moral virtue with material incentives. Capitalism's system of unequal wages, profits and losses, rent and interest, is not only morally justified but vitally necessary for the preservation and expansion of the economy. In short, anarcho-capitalists believe in and indeed must depend on some reasonable level of human morality, but prefer to rely on material incentives when feasible. (Similarly, they morally condemn crime and believe that most people have no desire to commit crimes, but strongly favor some sort of criminal justice system to deter the truly amoral.)
Aren't statists terrorists? Well, some of the them are; in fact, the overwhelming majority of non-governmental groups who murder and destroy property for political aims believe that government ought to exist (and that they ought to run it). And just as the existence of such statist terrorists is a poor argument for anarchism, the existence of anarchist terrorists is a poor argument against anarchism. For any idea whatever, there will always be those who advocate advancing it by violence.
It is however true that around the turn of the century, a certain segment of anarchists advocated what they called "propaganda by the deed." Several heads of state were assassinated by anarchists, along with businessmen, industrialists, stock-brokers, and so on. One of the most famous instances was when the young Alexander Berkman tried to murder the steel industrialist Henry Frick. During this era, the left-anarchists were divided as to the permissibility of terrorism; but of course many strongly opposed it. And individualist anarchists such as Benjamin Tucker almost always saw terrorist activities as both counter-productive and immoral when innocents were injured (as they often were).
The basic argument of the advocates of "propaganda by the deed" was that anarchist terrorism would provoke governments -- even avowedly liberal and democratic governments -- to resort to increasingly harsh measures to restore order. As governments' ruthlessness increased, their "true colors" would appear for all to see, leading to more immediate results than mere education and theorizing. As E.V. Zenker notes in his Anarchism: A Criticism and History of the Anarchist Theory, a number of Western governments were driven to adopt anti-terrorist laws as a result of anarchist terrorism. (Zenker goes on to note that Great Britain remained true to its liberal heritage by refusing to punish individuals merely for espousing anarchist ideas.) But as one might expect, contrary to the terrorists' hopes, it was the reputation of anarchism -- peaceful and violent alike -- which suffered rather than the reputation of the state.
Undoubtedly the most famous modern terrorist in the tradition of "propaganda by the deed" is the so-called Unabomber, who explicitly labels himself an anarchist in his now-famous manifesto. In his manifesto, the Unabomber makes relatively little attempt to link himself to any particular figures in the anarchist tradition, but professes familiarity and general agreement with the anarchistic wing of the radical environmentalist movement. A large proportion of this wide-ranging manifesto criticizes environmentalists' cooperation with socialists, minority rights activists, and other broadly left-wing groups; the point of this criticism is not of course to propose an alliance with conservatives, but to reject alliance with people who fail to reject technology as such. The more positive portion of the manifesto argues that freedom and technology are inherently incompatible, and outlines a program for the destruction of both modern industry and the scientific knowledge necessary to sustain it.
The large majority of anarchists -- especially in modern times -- fervently oppose the killing of innocents on purely moral grounds (just as most non-anarchists presumably do, though anarchists would often classify those killed in war as murder victims of the state). Nonviolence and pacifism now inspire far more anarchist thinkers than visions of random terror. Anarchists from many different perspectives have been inspired by the writings of the 16th-century Frenchman Etienne de la Boetie, whose quasi-anarchistic The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude spelled out a detailed theory of nonviolent revolution. La Boetie explained that since governments depend upon the widespread belief in their legitimacy in order to rule, despotism could be peacefully overthrown by refusing to cooperate with the state. Henry David Thoreau influenced many nonviolent protest movements with a similar theme in "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience." As Thoreau put it: "If the alternative is to keep all just men in prison, or give up war and slavery, the State will not hesitate which to choose." The success of the nonviolent anti-communist revolutions lends new support to the tactical insight of la Boetie and Thoreau.
But anarchists have a more instrumental reason to oppose the use of violence. Terrorism has been very effective in establishing new and more oppressive regimes; but it is nearly impossible to find any instance where terrorism led to greater freedom. For the natural instinct of the populace is to rally to support its government when terrorism is on the rise; so terrorism normally leads to greater brutality and tighter regulation by the existing state. And when terrorism succeeds in destroying an existing government, it merely creates a power vacuum without fundamentally changing anyone's mind about the nature of power. The predictable result is that a new state, worse than its predecessor, will swiftly appear to fill the void. Thus, the importance of using nonviolent tactics to advance anarchist ideas is hard to overstate.
On one level, most modern anarchists agree fully that education and persuasion are the most effective way to move society towards their ultimate destination. There is the conviction that "ideas matter"; that the state exists because most people honestly and firmly believe that the state is just, necessary, and beneficial, despite a few drawbacks. Winston Churchill famously remarked that, "It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except all the others that have been tried." The anarchist's goal is to disprove Churchill's claim: to show that contrary to popular belief, Western democracy is not only bad but inferior to a very different but realistic alternative.
Aside from this, the similarity between anarchist approaches breaks down. In particular, what should the "transitional" phase look like? Anarcho-capitalists generally see every reduction in government power and activity as a step in the right direction. In consequence, they usually support any measure to deregulate, repeal laws, and cut taxation and spending (naturally with the caveat that the cuts do not go nearly far enough). Similarly, they can only hail the spread of the underground economy or "black market," tax evasion, and other acts of defiance against unjust laws.
The desirable transitional path for the left-anarchist is more problematic. It is hard to support expansion of the state when it is the state that one opposes so fervently. And yet, it is difficult to advocate the abolition of e.g. welfare programs when they are an important means of subsistence for the oppressed lower classes of capitalist society. Perhaps the most viable intermediate step would be to expand the voluntary alternatives to capitalist society: voluntary communes, cooperatives, worker-owned firms, or whatever else free people might establish to fulfill their own needs while they enlighten others.
Author of this FAQ
To begin with, there is my homepage at:
- Bryan Caplan Archives
I keep the list of addresses short because the sites provided allow easy access to a large number of related sites.
Some starting points for discussion of left-anarchism are:
- Anarchist Archives
The best page of its type, in my view.
- Prominent Anarchists and Left-Libertarians
- Anarchist Yearbook -- Phoenix Press
- Spunk Press Catalog
- Critiques of Libertarianism
- What is Anarchism?
Some starting points for discussion of anarcho-capitalism are:
- Anarcho-capitalist FAQ
- Brief explanation of anarcho capitalism
- James Donald's Liberty Page
- Institute for Humane Studies
- Hogeye Bill's Anarchism Page
- Strike the Root
International Society for
- David Friedman Homepage
Sectarian Anarcho-socialist FAQThere are several other anarchism FAQs available on the web. None of them are to my complete satisfaction; among other failings, they normally either ignore anarcho-capitalism entirely, or attack a straw man version thereof, and thus do little to clarify the most heated of the net-related debates. On the positive side, these other FAQs often have much more historical information than mine does. See for yourself.
- The Infoshop Anarchist FAQ
Critical RebuttalsMy FAQ is beginning to amass its share of critics who prefer to write full-length replies. Those that I am aware of are:
Rebuttal to the Anarchism FAQ of Bryan Caplan by Lamont Granquist
Replies to Some Errors and Distortions
in Bryan Caplan's Anarchist Theory FAQ
My only comment is that it is simply untrue that I have ignored criticisms of my FAQ. There are numerous points I have altered or expanded it due to criticism I have received; and when I disagree with a critic's claim, I frequently ask permission to quote their reservations verbatim in the next revision. It is however true that I only respond to private e-mail criticisms; attacks simply posted to Usenet are unlikely to come to my attention.
To my knowledge there is no page which contains a broad survey along the lines of this FAQ. However, these sources in combination should give a good picture of the wide range of anarchist opinion, along with more information on history and current events which I chose not to discuss in detail herein. Examination of these sites can also give a reasonable picture of how left-anarchism and anarcho- capitalism intellectually relate to the broader progressive and libertarian movements, respectively.
This list is by no means intended to be exhaustive; nor does
inclusion here necessarily indicate that the work is of
particularly high quality. In particular, both Heider's and
Marshall's works contain a number of
errors. (Some of the more glaring errors from Marshall's
Impossible appear to have been corrected in this
Particularly well-written and canonical expressions of
different anarchist theories are noted with an asterisk (*).
Broad surveys of anarchism are noted with a number sign
For comments, suggestions, corrections, etc., write
Thanks to Fabio Rojas, James
Donald, David Friedman, Robert Vienneau, Ken Steube,
Ben Haller, Vincent Cook, Bill Woolsey, Conal Smith, Jim
Kalb, Chris Faatz, J. Shamlin, Keith Lynch, Rose Lucas,
Bruce Baechler, Jim Cook, Jack Jansen,
Tom Wetzel, Steve Koval, Brent Jass, Tracy Harms, Ian Goddard,
and I.M. McKay for helpful advice
or other assistance.
This list is by no means intended to be exhaustive; nor does inclusion here necessarily indicate that the work is of particularly high quality. In particular, both Heider's and Marshall's works contain a number of embarrassing factual errors. (Some of the more glaring errors from Marshall's Demanding the Impossible appear to have been corrected in this linked exerpt.)
Particularly well-written and canonical expressions of different anarchist theories are noted with an asterisk (*). Broad surveys of anarchism are noted with a number sign (#).
For comments, suggestions, corrections, etc., write firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks to Fabio Rojas, James Donald, David Friedman, Robert Vienneau, Ken Steube, Ben Haller, Vincent Cook, Bill Woolsey, Conal Smith, Jim Kalb, Chris Faatz, J. Shamlin, Keith Lynch, Rose Lucas, Bruce Baechler, Jim Cook, Jack Jansen, Tom Wetzel, Steve Koval, Brent Jass, Tracy Harms, Ian Goddard, and I.M. McKay for helpful advice or other assistance.