Liberty Against Anarchy

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Surveying the efforts of Free State Project immigrants to New Hampshire to “turn the state into a real-life Libertopia,” Mother Jones (September/October 2011) concluded that there was a “problem with attempting to create a libertarian utopia: No one — least of all libertarians [themselves] — can agree on what it looks like.” You see, some libertarians want even such basic government functions as the police “converted into purely voluntary organizations,” while others simply “believe the problem is too much government, not the existence of government itself.”

"‘Tis news to thee," a libertarian Prospero might respond. But while the debate of anarchism vs. limited government has long divided the movement, champions of a social theory should be able to explain to others what practice it logically leads to.

This was one of the issues that I would have liked to have discussed with Roy A. Childs, Jr. Childs (1949–1992) was a libertarian activist and essayist, known and loved by countless other libertarians — and readers of Liberty. Roy wasn’t the first person to make the case for “free market anarchism” — he was just the most articulate. (On anarchism before Roy, see R.W. Bradford, “In the Beginning, There Were Anarchists,” Liberty, June 1999.) Roy's untimely death ended any possible correspondence. But I continue to think of Roy, and I continue to want to write him as I do here.

* * *

Dear Roy,

We had “met” only once — in 1991, when you returned my phone message . . . at 2:42 AM. You very courteously asked your fellow New Yorker if you’d caught him “at a bad time.” Alas, I remember only two other things about that conversation: some disappointment when you told me you never received the mailed copy of my “Leonard Peikoff vs. Philosophy,”1 but great joy that I was actually speaking with Roy Childs.

I’m writing now to respond to what has become almost the locus classicus of contemporary libertarian anarchism: your 1969 “Objectivism and the State: An Open Letter to Ayn Rand.”2 For many, it was their introduction to — and entrance into — the advocacy of the “establishment of competing agencies of defense.” You yourself eventually abandoned anarchism but never rebutted the essay in detail.3 That is what I will now do, because all the “anarcho-capitalist” polemics since have been little more than its echoes.

You came right out with it: a “monopoly” government limited to retaliatory force could not continue as a “monopoly” government without initiating force, thereby violating that limit, its animating principle. Your foundational argument:

The quickest way of showing why it must either initiate force or cease being a government is the following: Suppose that I were distraught with the service of a government in an Objectivist society. Suppose that I judged, being as rational as I possibly could, that I could secure the protection of my contracts and the retrieval of stolen goods at a cheaper price and with more efficiency. Suppose I either decide to set up an institution to attain these ends, or patronize one which a friend or a business colleague has established. Now, if he succeeds in setting up the agency, which provides all the services of the Objectivist government, and restricts his more efficient activities to the use of retaliation against aggressors, there are only two alternatives as far as the “government” is concerned: (a) It can use force or the threat of it against the new institution, in order to keep its monopoly status in the given territory, thus initiating the use of threat of physical force against one who has not himself initiated force. Obviously, then, if it should choose this alternative, it would have initiated force. Q.E.D. Or: (b) It can refrain from initiating force, and allow the new institution to carry on its activities without interference. If it did this, then the Objectivist “government” would become a truly marketplace institution, and not a “government” at all. There would be competing agencies of protection, defense and retaliation — in short, free market anarchism.

“Suppose” — bull’s-eye. The fault in this thought experiment is a supposition that has no real-world referent. When confronted with any violent action of a citizen, including the self-proclaimed “use of retaliation” by anarchists, the policeman — i.e., the “night watchman” minarchist state — can’t just mystically intuit whether that force is offensive or defensive. His only course (if he is to remain a rights-enforcing entity) is to proceed with a standard investigation. When anarchists (if they are to remain anarchists) object to this “interference,” there can be no doubt what they are asserting: that a police investigation of a possible initiation of force is itself an initiation of force. With that, we have abandoned any hope of a legal system. It is an argument against, not the “monopolization” of the police function, but the police function itself: the assertion holds even if the “police” in question are themselves an anarchist “agency of defense.” The proper, sufficient answer: a police investigation of a possible initiation of force is no more obviously a coercive act than a possible initiation of force is a noncoercive act.

If anyone requires a Sanchez-and-Jimenez sketch, fine: the police encounter Sanchez dragging a bound Jimenez down the street. When questioned, Sanchez retorts, “Laissez-nous faire— leave us alone! All you need to know is that this man initiated force against me and I am now retaliating. I will presently imprison him in my basement.” Meanwhile, Jimenez is screaming that he’s being kidnapped. Now, is anyone going to insist that it’s an initiation of force for the police to take both into custody? Why — because this is a “private” matter between Sanchez and Jimenez? Private, “marketplace” matters are nonviolent (e.g., economic, religious, sexual, artistic) relationships between consenting adults, which is why coercion against them is said to “initiate” force. When two parties are trading fire instead of goods or ideas, privacy has fled the scene.

Simply “being rational” is not a substitute for police investigation, trial by jury, and the other features of a legal system that is universal and therefore impartial.

Consequently, even though a private firm (e.g., a bodyguard service) may advertise “protection” or “defense,” its first punch or shot becomes that “violent action of a citizen.” Yes, there is peace and mutual agreement — a private, capitalistic relationship — between you and your “friend or a business colleague,” but not between you two “retaliation”-seekers and those “aggressors.”

Logically, Roy, this “Q.E.D.” has no point of purchase. It is nothing more than a floating abstraction — a cloudy concept.4

Anarchism as a revolt against nature

Failure to distinguish what can and cannot be private has been central to most of the controversies surrounding “free market anarchism.”

Consider your response to one of Ayn Rand’s objections to it. She had written, “The use of physical force — even its retaliatory use — cannot be left at the discretion of individual citizens.” What you made of this is truly remarkable, demanding it be quoted in full. In your reply to Rand, you wrote:

This contradicts your epistemological and ethical position. Man’s mind — which means: the mind of the individual human being — is capable of knowing reality, and man is capable of coming to conclusions on the basis of his rational judgment and acting on the basis of his rational self-interest. You imply, without stating it, that if an individual decides to use retaliation, that that [sic] decision is somehow subjective and arbitrary. Rather, supposedly the individual should leave such a decision up to government which is — what? Collective and therefore objective? This is illogical. If man is not capable of making these decisions, then he isn’t capable of making them, and no government made up of men is capable of making them, either. By what epistemological criterion is an individual’s action classified as “arbitrary,” while that of a group of individuals is somehow “objective”?

Rather, I assert that an individual must judge, and evaluate the facts of reality in accordance with logic and by the standard of his own rational self-interest. Are you here claiming that man’s mind is not capable of knowing reality? That men must not judge, or act on the basis of their rational self-interest and perception of the facts of reality? To claim this is to smash the root of the Objectivist philosophy: the validity of reason, and the ability and right of man to think and judge for himself.

I am not, of course, claiming that a man must always personally use retaliation against those who initiate such [force] against him — he has the right, though not the obligation, to delegate that right to any legitimate agency. I am merely criticizing your faulty logic.

Sorry, but this is a parody of Rand’s writings on independent judgment and its corollary, individual liberty. The issue is not Sanchez’s deciding the next line of his poem or what color to paint his house. Here the “right of man to think and judge for himself” translates into Sanchez’s deciding how he’ll use force against Jimenez’s life, liberty, and property — again, hardly a private, “personal” matter. No coherent concept of liberty grants a man the “freedom” to do to others whatever he wants — even if he issues a two-minute statement assuring the public that what he did was based on his own “self-interest and perception of the facts.” (But if Sanchez does have that “freedom,” does Jimenez have it, too?)

Individual liberty is a social responsibility.

Simply “being rational” is not a substitute for police investigation, trial by jury, and the other features of a legal system that is universal and therefore impartial. Sanchez’s being “objective” (i.e., disinterested) regarding a conflict to which he’s a party is a flat-out contradiction — and another misrepresentation of a Randian concept.

I’m struck by the irony in your presenting the case against limited government as an attempt to correct an error, a “contradiction,” within Objectivism. Consider this exchange from the original (1936) version of Rand's novel We the Living:

Andrei: “I know what you’re going to say. You’re going to say, as so many of our enemies do, that you admire our ideals, but loathe our methods.”

Kira: “I loathe your ideals. I admire your methods. If one believes one’s right, one shouldn’t wait to convince millions of fools, one might just as well force them. Except I don’t know, however, whether I’d include blood in my methods.”

Andrei: “Why not? Anyone can sacrifice his own life for an idea. How many know the devotion that makes you capable of sacrificing other lives? Horrible, isn’t it?”

Kira: “Not at all. Admirable. If you’re right. But are you right?”

This is often adduced as an example of Rand’s possible early flirtation with Nietzsche, though the closer comparison would be with Max Stirner, whose version of “egoism” posited that “the” (each?) individual retains “even the power over life and death.” Declaring that “we owe each other nothing,” he included murder as an acceptable act under his anarchism.5

Your anarchism, while purportedly rejecting coercion, also rested on the notion that “the” (each?) individual has a right to use force against others if one believes one is right — with no responsibility to prove anything to anyone else. Said notion is an element of the Stirnerite paradigm of me-subjectivism, the sacrifice of others to oneself, and anarchism, which is as anti-Objectivist as the Marxist paradigm of we-subjectivism, the sacrifice of oneself to others, and statism. This false dichotomy stands in opposition to Rand’s philosophy of objectivity, the value of each individual, and limited government. In the 1959 edition, Rand excised that foreign element, removing it from the body of Objectivism. With your "Open Letter" to Rand, you reintroduced it — with the same ethical premise leading to the same political practice.

In The Fountainhead, Rand's hero, Howard Roark, declared: “I recognize no obligations toward men except one: to respect their freedom . . .” Thank you, Mr. Roark: “Individual liberty” is a social responsibility. This equation has always been regarded as an abominable contradiction by those for whom privacy must obtain without context — the hobgoblin of “market anarchist” minds. Just as the egalitarian wishes to extend equality from the political realm to the socio-economic one, the anarchist wants to take privacy in the opposite direction. And just as the egalitarian condemns limited government as “economic royalism,” the anarchist condemns it as “law-and-order socialism.” But force, as we’ve seen, is no more anyone’s private business than wealth is everyone’s equal right. Roy, your confusion on this point exemplified, not refuted, Rand’s insight that self-styled “anarcho-capitalists” actually accept the “basic premise of the modern statists — who see no difference between the functions of government and the functions of industry, between force and production, and who advocate government ownership of business — [and merely] take the other side of the same coin and declare that since competition [i.e., privatization] is so beneficial to business, it should also be applied to government.”

A multitude of agencies acting on warring valuations of force is not peaceful cooperation under the rule of law, but armed struggle to establish a rule of law.

Unlike the institutions of civil society (e.g., a church), political society (subsuming everyone) is not a conventional, contractual union, whose private morality doesn’t constrain those who don’t join. It is the natural order we are born into, and its natural laws governing the use of force are not “products” or “services” one is free to reject. Is anybody is going to contend that it’s a contradiction to say individuals may do as they choose and must obey the noncoercion principle — that is, in effect to affirm that liberty really does entail the “freedom” and “privacy” to use force however one wishes? If not, it is not a contradiction for a public (“monopoly”) morality to have a public institution. It is precisely the socialization of law — the monolithic imposition of the noncoercion principle — that conversely creates the privatization of everything else.

(Consequently, when a man initiates force, he doesn’t just incur a “debt which he must repay to the victim,” as you said, but a debt that he also owes to society for breaking its laws. Crime cannot be a private matter between the assailant and his victims — or their “heirs.”)

Anarcho-anticapitalism

To repeat: you say, “There would be competing agencies of protection, defense and retaliation.” Why? Morally, we’ve seen that these “competing agencies” would no less than a “monopoly” government “initiate force” as anarchists themselves conceive it. So why would there be such “agencies” practically? Because the withdrawing of the policeman would allow them to arise? Only in the way it would allow all manner of “agencies” to arise. When the rights-enforcing policeman goes, he takes the market with him. There is no longer the universal administration of laws against aggression, the framework of a free market. The resultant anarchy is no more capitalist than communist, no more Rothbardian than Bakuninite . . . or Stirnerite or majoritarian or theocratic or anything else. What happens among a multitude of “agencies” (and nonaligned individuals) acting on warring valuations of force is not peaceful cooperation under the rule of law, but armed struggle to establish a rule of law (of whatever kind) — not market competition, but martial combat.6

The projection that most “agencies” would provide only “protection, defense and retaliation” assumes that almost all of the population had turned libertarian, a conversion evidently effected by the mere elimination of limited government. If we’re making armchair pronouncements, how much more breath does it take to proclaim that in the absence of the rights-enforcing policeman everyone will turn libertarian, thus nullifying any need for even those “agencies”?

Actually, Roy, you came pretty close to doing just that. In "The Nature of Government" (in The Virtue of Selfishness), Rand had posed a scenario:

Mr. Smith, a customer of Government [i.e., Protection Agency] 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 accept the validity of Mr. Smith’s complaint and do not recognize the authority of Government A. What happens then? You take it from there.

And you countered:

Unfortunately, though this poses as a convincing argument, it is a straw man, and is about as accurate a picture of the institutions pictured by free market anarchists as would be my setting up Nazi Germany as an historical example of an Objectivist society.

The main question to ask at this point is this: do you think that it would be in the rational self-interest of either agency to allow this to happen, this fighting out conflicts in the streets, which is what you imply? No? Then what view of human nature does it presuppose to assume that such would happen anyway?

By “anyway,” did you in fact mean “ever”? So, if all sides — if all people — are veritable embodiments of “rational self-interest” (which, for Objectivism, is an ethic, not an instinct), why even “picture” institutions whose very existence would be a testament that some men are not angels?

To the degree you didn’t dismiss the issue, you wrote only:

Obviously, there are a number of ways in which such ferocious confrontations can be avoided by rational businessmen: there could be contracts or "treaties" between the competing agencies providing for the peaceful ironing out of disputes, etc., just to mention one simplistic way. Do you see people as being so blind that this would not occur to them?

Fundamental breakdowns in mutual consent will be handled by . . . mutual consent. Perhaps now we should just concede your point: if only “rational businessmen” will be involved, why indeed assume that such confrontations would happen “anyway”?

That said, we must note that elsewhere in the letter you yourself assume the possibility of “defense agency” clashes:

Now, if the new agency should in fact initiate the use of force, then the former "government"-turned-marketplace-agency would of course have the right to retaliate against those individuals who performed the act. But, likewise, so would the new institution be able to use retaliation against the former "government" if that should initiate force.

All that’s needed is for those acts of aggression to occur simultaneously and we have a conflict more harrowing than the one Rand imagined.

You should have judged her scenario by the standard you began with: if each of the “agencies” — Police A and Police B — is a “truly marketplace institution,” why is anyone obligated to recognize either? We are free to reject the services of a private butcher or baker or LED-maker, so why can’t we reject those of a “private policeman”? But if this entity doesn’t obey our (including Mr. Jones’) demand to be left alone, how is he a private anything? To belabor the obvious: “private policeman” is a contradiction, “public policeman” a redundancy.

Instead, you continued to view the impasse mostly psychologically. Addressing Rand, you said:

One legitimate answer to your allegations is this: since you are, in effect, asking “what happens when the agencies decide to act irrationally?” allow me to ask the far more potent question: “What happens when your government acts irrationally?” — which is at least possible. And which is more likely, in addition, to occur: the violation of rights by a bureaucrat or politician who got his job by fooling people in elections, which are nothing but community-wide opinion-mongering contests (which are, presumably, a rational and objective manner of selecting the best people for a job), or the violation of rights by a hard-nosed businessman, who has had to earn his position? So your objection against competing agencies is even more effective against your own “limited government.”

This somehow fails to notice that in your opening thought experiment such “irrationality” — the refusal to recognize the authority of another “police” body — is the very origin of the first anarchist “agency” (whose viability is supposedly confirmed by the experiment's plot point [“b”] where the government police force doesn’t return this “irrationality”). But what it really misses is that the conflicts between the innumerable Smiths and Joneses will be ones not mostly of “irrationality” (of whatever type), but fundamentally of different concepts of justice whenno one concept is codified as law, which (rather than universal rationality and the “absence of the initiation of force”) is the essence of anarchism. What’s left for an “answer” is the claim that a public officeholder under limited government would be more likely to violate rights than a “hard-nosed businessman” anarchist because the former puts himself up for election, whereas the latter puts himself up . . . for sale.

Childs talks about “governments” as if there were no difference between Nazi Germany and an Objectivist society, i.e., between tyranny and government per se.

That would be crazy enough if it were true, but what’s actually crazier is that it’s not. Think about it: Is he for sale? Why does he have to “earn” his position? Certainly not because there’s still a policeman around to enforce competition, i.e., to protect the people’s right to take their money where they want. The only “competition” between such “businessmen” will be over who steals those people’s wealth. When the policeman withdraws, the millionaire’s money becomes paper and his gold a target. Just as egalitarianism doesn’t establish equality in the socioeconomic realm but does destroy it in the political realm, so anarchism doesn’t establish private enterprise in the political realm but does destroy it in the socioeconomic realm.7

Your assumption here — the capitalist economy will survive without a capitalist government — is one that is in fact shared by some leftist critics of “free market anarchism,” e.g., Mark Paul: a “rich man’s anarchy.”8 We should recall Engels’ January 24, 1872, letter to Theodor Cuno, where he (purportedly) contrasts the Marxist position with that of Bakunin: “[He says] the state above all must be abolished; then capital will go to hell of itself. We [say] the contrary.” Ultimately, these are merely contrary characterizations of the same means to the same end. Any abolition of limited government — statist or “anarchist” — will reap only astrongman’s despotism.

What is the “market”?

It’s not too hard to see how confusion over what constitutes the “market” arises. When a government denationalizes medicine, we say there is now a “free market in medicine.” So, we develop a formula: Where the state isn’t, the market is. Well, then wouldn’t 0% state be 100% market, i.e., “free market anarchism”?

No. As stated, the free market exists, not in the absence of all government, but in the presence of limited government — the rights-enforcing policeman. Political society is the primary, the yin whose conception — formation — outlines the yang of civil society. Several points in the letter evinced your failure to understand this:

  • “There is such a thing as the division of labor, the free market — and that can provide all the food man needs. So too with protection against aggression.”
  • “There is nothing particularly difficult about [understanding the prohibition of the initiation of force], and no reason why the free market could not evolve institutions around this concept of justice.”
  • “You would not argue that since there are needs for objective laws in the production of steel, therefore the government should take over that activity. Why do you argue it in the case of protection, defense and retaliation?”

The free market cannot provide protection against aggression because there is no such market until government provides protection against aggression; only then can a free (as opposed to black, underground, vulnerable-to-sundry-sources-of-coercion) market provide food and man’s other socioeconomic needs. The free market cannot “evolve” an institution of retaliatory force because there must first be such an institution to permit that market. Thus, government does not “take over” (from an “anarcho-capitalist” Eden?) protection, defense, and retaliation; its universal performance of these — and only these — is what defines the “free market.”

Just as egalitarianism treats socioeconomic products and services — i.e., what we don’t have a right to — as political rights, so anarchism treats political rights — protection, defense, and retaliation — as “services which . . . can be offered [or denied] on a market at a price.”9

Disputes and conflicts

There were a few other points that I might as well address, such as:

Another interesting argument against your position is this: there is now anarchy between citizens of different countries, i.e., between, say, a Canadian citizen on one side of the Canadian-American border and an American citizen on the other. There is, to be more precise, no single government which presides over both of them. If there is a need for government to settle disputes among individuals, as you state, then you should look at the logical implications of your argument: is there not then a need for a super-government to resolve disputes among governments? Of course the implications of this are obvious: theoretically, the ultimate end of this process of piling government on top of government is a government for the entire universe. And the practical end, for the moment, is at the very least world government.

We are talking about the need for a “given territory” to have a single government to ban coercion. “[D]isputes among individuals” — crimes — are investigated in the jurisdiction where they occurred. This would be meaningless under “free market anarchism,” whose whole premise is that no territory should be the jurisdiction of anyone or anything. There is now no anarchy between nations because there is no territory between nations — only borders. As for “disputes among governments,” what discord did you imagine limited governments would have? Even in our time, what intolerable “disputes” have occurred between the Canadian and American governments?

You continued:

Also, you should be aware of the fact that just as conflicts could conceivably arise between such market agencies, so could they arise between governments — which is called war, and is a thousand times more terrible. Making a defense agency a monopoly in a certain area doesn't do anything to eliminate such conflicts, of course. It merely makes them more awesome, more destructive, and increases the number of innocent bystanders who are harmed immensely. Is this desirable?

As pointed out, market agencies are entities between whom there is no possibility of violence, e.g., McDonald’s and Burger King. Entities between whom such “conflicts” are conceivable are not actual market competitors, but potential martial combatants. Despite your semantic protest that the “theory which we [anarchists] advocate is not called ‘competing governments’ … since a government is a coercive monopoly,” this possibility of “conflicts” (i.e., the “ferocious confrontations” you denied earlier) among anarchist groups parallels the political relationship among states (hence your comparison), not the economic relationship among businesses — anarcho-government, not “anarcho-capitalism.” Indeed, it was only your narrow and out-of-focus definition of the “market” — absence of all “monopoly” — that allowed you to apply that term to a state of civil war.

Are we to believe that war is the health of any state? Whatever happened to “If goods don’t cross borders, armies will”?

How then did you maintain that the elimination of “monopoly” governments alone would end all war — by defining war as that which occurs only “between governments”? At the very least, “[m]aking a defense agency a monopoly in a certain area” prevents jurisdictional armed battles within that area. But talk about not recognizing the “logical implications” of one’s own argument: with your assertion that “market protection agencies could perform more efficiently the same service as is supposedly provided by ‘government,’” you were actually telling us that it’s the military “conflicts” of these anarchists that would prove to be “more awesome, more destructive” — or did you seriously believe their mercenary forces would pursue “efficiency” with less destruction?10 By the way, notice how now you are talking about “governments” as if there were no difference between Nazi Germany and an Objectivist society, i.e., between tyranny and government per se — the frozen-abstraction fallacy. Are we to believe that war is the health of any state? Whatever happened to “If goods don’t cross borders, armies will”? Since goods will cross the borders of limited governments, what other feature of minarchism is so intrinsically militaristic as to favor the adoption of anarchism (whose “conflicts” you simply didn’t label war)?

Indeed, by the end of the letter you were reduced to the mantra that government is government is statism:

And there is the major issue of the destructiveness of the state itself. No one can evade the fact that, historically, the state is a blood-thirsty monster, which has been responsible for more violence, bloodshed and hatred than any other institution known to man. Your approach to the matter is not yet radical, not yet fundamental: it is the existence of the state itself which must be challenged by the new radicals . . .

This is the only alternative to continuing centuries of statism, with all quibbling only over the degree of the evil we will tolerate.

This merely magnifies the false dichotomy discussed before: Marx or Stirner, socialization of production or “privatization” of force, statism (“world government”) or anarchism. But limited government is the logical opposite of unlimited government, and a “degree of evil” isn’t what separates the protection of rights from their violation, i.e., Rand and stopping Sanchez’s dragging off Jimenez from Marx and the liquidation of millions. And yet your either-or appears to be at the heart of it, doesn’t it, Roy? If the “free market” can’t provide the “services” of protection and retaliation, doesn’t that undercut the argument that capitalism can provide for “all of men’s needs”? — that seems to be the worry. And won’t only anarchism (with no stateat all) guarantee a sterile society in which the spore of statismcan never germinate? — that seems to be the reassurance. This is yet another example of what happens to political philosophy when definition and context simply aren’t addressed.

(And “historically,” the anarchy of the epoch before the rise of the nation-state was itself violent, bloody, and hateful enough to utterly negate its appeal as an alternative to [even somewhat] limited government, e.g., Thomas Sowell on the legacy of 19th-century liberalism: “The last great war to ravage the whole continent of Europe ended 85 years earlier, at Waterloo — and such horrors were considered permanently behind us.”11)

Political philosophy per se relates to another claim in the letter. Basically, you felt you were no more obligated to detail the workings of anarchy’s political society than Rand was those of minarchy’s civil society:

I do not intend to undertake a full “model” of a free market anarchist society, since I, like yourself, truly cannot discuss things that way. I am not a social planner and again, like yourself, do not spend my time inventing Utopias.

This confuses political philosophy (whose very purpose is to model — to explicate — political society) with “central planning” (the socialist state’s conceit for its coercing of civil society). As Friedrich Hayek and others have explained, no one can fruitfully discuss what would best serve the socioeconomic needs of a population because no man (or relative handful of men) can supply the requisite omniscience, viz., the calculation of an almost infinite number of factors past, present, and future (which is why, in contrast, Hayek speaks of the market’s coordination of information as a “discovery process”). But philosophy doesn’t demand omniscience. “Philosophy, as Ayn Rand often observed,” Leonard Peikoff writes, “deals only with the kinds of issues available to men in any era”12 — i.e., a set of common facts that require only observation and abstraction. This is why a single philosopher can generate a hundred rational principles but a hundred bureaucrats cannot generate a single rational price. It is why conservative anti-“rationalism” is appropriate towards socialist “central planning” but not liberal political philosophy — and that is why we reject both conservatism (which, ultimately, believes that men are incapable of abstracting from concretes — like beasts) and socialism (which, again, believes that some men are capable of knowing all concretes — like gods), and embrace classical liberalism. With it, we plan (i.e., align with natural law) a political society that doesn’t “plan” civil society.

This is why a single philosopher can generate a hundred rational principles but a hundred bureaucrats cannot generate a single rational price.

The fact is, you were not “talking about principles whose practical applications should be clear.” Again, anarchism qua anarchism can say only that there will be no “monopoly” government, no one law; the proposition of consequent universal noncoercion (i.e., the “free market”) is without foundation. Eventually, you conceded all this when, in your recantation of anarchism, you acknowledged the intellectual deficit signified by your having “never written anything about how free market anarchism would work.” It was evidently the forever-fluid nature of this ideal that ultimately crystallized your conviction that “anarchism functions in the libertarian movement precisely as does Marxism in the international socialist movement: as an incoherent and therefore unreachable goal that inevitably corrupts any attempted strategy to achieve it.”13

Check your premises

Roy, while it failed to prove its case, your letter to Ayn Rand succeeded in one vital way: it encouraged people to critically review, rather than passively accept, what she presented as a comprehensive philosophy “for living on earth” — something that cannot be appreciated enough given the cultish elements that sprang up around (and still cling to) Objectivism. It inspired my own questioning of Rand’s propositions, including even the noncoercion principle itself.14 Think about that: one can never — in any context — initiate force? Wouldn’t that make noncoercion a Kantian categorical imperative, as opposed to an Objectivist contextual principle? And if emergencies constitute an “exceptional” context, what would constitute an emergency situation for a government — the inability to raise a sufficient volunteer army in the face of a blitzkrieg? “Even so, this would not give the rest of the population a right to the lives of the country’s young men.” OK, why not?15 Objectivism will go nowhere if it cannot answer the questions it raises.

You ended: “Let us walk forward into the sunlight, Miss Rand. You belong with us.” Roy, you walked forward no matter who did or didn’t join you.

Yours in reason,

Barry Loberfeld

 

Notes
1. http://www.abcdunlimited.com/ideas/philosophy.html.
2. http://www.isil.org/ayn-rand/childs-open-letter.html.
3. “Anarchist Illusions” in Liberty Against Power: Essays by Roy A. Childs, Jr. (1994) is the introductory fragment of a never-continued work.
4. The thought experiment clouds your own (implicit) premise, which is that a limited government, even if it protected contracts and retrieved stolen goods perfectly, would still, as a “monopoly,” have to initiate force to suppress “competition” with these “services.” Instead, it raises an entirely different issue: what happens when we don’t have a government that in any way defends individual rights? Whether by neglect or direct violation, a failure to protect rights at all is not what we generally mean by “limited government.” Rebellion against such failure does not lead inexorably to rebellion against government per se (see AMERICAN REVOLUTION), and people’s having to take the law into their own hands is not a “night watchman” state, but a state of anarchy.
5. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/max-stirner/.
6. In It Usually Begins With Ayn Rand (1971, pp.166–69), Jerome Tuccille related how he “went off to address a class of left-wing anarchists at Hunter College in New York City.” He mentions that “there to lend me moral support was a grouplet of right-wing libertarians.” At one point, a member of this “grouplet” asked these “left-wing anarchists” a question:
“I just want to know one thing. If we were living in an anarchist society and you people had your commune organized the way you wanted it, what would you do about private-property owners who didn’t threaten you in any way? Suppose there was a capitalist community five miles away that left you alone and minded its own business — would you co-exist with it or would you try to suppress it?”
Perhaps it was a reaction against the anarcho-capitalist and his little market place, perhaps they really meant it; I have no way of knowing for sure. But to this question there was a universal outcry from the class at large:
“We’d come in and kick shit out of you, man!”
“We’d beat your ass in!”
“We’d rip you off, baby! Just like that!”
I slowly started to gather my paraphernalia.
If these folks didn’t “forbid capitalist acts between consenting adults” (as Robert Nozick put it), they wouldn’t be left-wingers — they’d be capitalists. (“[P]erhaps they really meant it” — unbelievable. But note that the interlocutor came prepared; his question is from John Henry Mackay’s The Anarchists: A Picture of Civilization at the Close of the Nineteenth Century [1891].)
7. Hence the absurdity of affirming that anarchy’s citizens “would of course have the right” to do anything. Rights would be universally guaranteed neither formally nor practically; self-control of person and property would be determined solely by one’s luck in repelling predators. The old statists of the Left called the market a “jungle,” and the new anarchists of the Right call the jungle a “market.”
And how would one “be able to use” retaliation? Under minarchy, one is “able” to go to church, for instance, because there is governmental protection of, but not interference with, this activity. Without that protection, what practically guarantees that one is “able to use retaliation” without being stopped by anyone, including the party one alleges one is “retaliating” against? And morally, why should one “be able to use retaliation” without governmental interference — a question that returns us to my answer to your original thought experiment.
8. “Seducing the Left: The Third Party That Wants YOU,” Mother Jones, May 1980.
9. Your full statement: “We [anarchists] most emphatically do not accept the basic premise of modern statists, and do not confuse force and production. We merely recognize protection, defense and retaliation for what they are: namely, scarce services which, because they are scarce, can be offered on a market at a price.” The very invocation of scarcity confuses force — retaliatory and aggressive — with production, since scarcity is an attribute of all human action. By this reasoning, we must also recognize assassination-for-hire (à la Murder, Inc.) and other “dirty deeds done dirt cheap” for “what they are: namely, scarce services which, because they are scarce, can be offered on a market at a price.”
10. Then again, you also said: “Note that what is in question is not whether or not, in fact, any free market agency of protection, defense or retaliation is more efficient than the former ‘government.’ The point is that whether it is more efficient or not can only be decided by individuals acting according to their rational self-interest and on the basis of their rational judgment.” All right, so which in fact will the “free market agency” pursue with unmatched capability: (a) the objective implications of the noncoercion principle (e.g., freedom of religion, speech, assembly), or (b) the subjective “consumer preferences” of its clients — unless, as noted, it sees its greatest profit in (c) the plundering of its subjects?
11. Compassion versus Guilt, 1987, p. 238.
12. “Fact and Value,” The Intellectual Activist, 5:1, May 1989. Though “Leonard Peikoff vs. Philosophy” is critical of the essay, Peikoff is correct on this point.
13. Liberty Against Power, p. 181.
14. That questioning appeared in this very journal in June 1999. A version can be found at http://www.abcdunlimited.com/ideas/anarchy.html.
15. http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/draft.html. Rand doesn’t say; she just states that a lack of "volunteers in the face of foreign aggression" has never happened in a free (“or even semi-free”) society, the implication being that therefore it would never happen. So, first she concedes the possibility of a situation and proscribes one alternative that could be taken in it, only to then virtually deny the possibility, rendering the proscription moot.

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Comments

Visitor

Mr. Trainor errs. Loberfeld does not state that Roy Childs made "a deathbed denial" of anarchism. Nor is it true. Roy had dropped his anarchism at least since the early 1980s. He died in 1992.

The article is pretty good. I don't agree that one must cross swords with the most recent crew of anarchists or prepare a comprehensive survey of anarchists in order to take issue with the fundamental claims of free-market anarchists, which don't vary much in principle.

Nor do I believe that the question of anarchism versus limited government is a minor or irrelevant one. It entails consideration of the fundamental nature of force, rights and liberty. "Most people" aren't interested in understanding political philosophy in any great detail regardless of sub-topic. But persons interested in ideas who purport to defend liberty should take pains to study the subject, so that they can know what they are talking about when they are asked what they are talking about.

Brendan Trainor

I am curious as to why the author decided to rebut a deceased person, when there are numerous living, breathing anarcho capitalists to debate. I think Hans Herman Hoppe would have weighed in on the Pax Britanica of 19th century liberalism, as he believes that precisely because government was limited, it allowed for the expansion of empire. See "Democracy, the God that failed". Of course, there are numerous anarcho capitalists who have been writing about this subject since the demise of the great Roy Childs. Does the author believe that none of them have surpassed Mr Childs' thought re this issue? Butler Shafer, Bob Murphy, Mike Rozeff, the list is quite long of those who would like to have a go at this, and make it a real debate, not a letter to a long deceased anarchist...(who, the author states, had a deathbed denial!).

Jon Harrison

Anarchism vs. limited government: it's rather amazing that one can find people who will go on and on exploring the finer points of that particular debate. Amazing because it will never matter to 99.9% of the human race. Anarchism as a philosophy has meaning only for a few cranks. Yet another example of doctrinaire libertarians gathering wool as the world passes them by.

Rodney Choate

But it doesn't take many cranks hanging around your gang to give the opposition plenty of ammunition. Limited government thinking already looks enough like anarchy to most people that just a few genuine anarchists around is a death blow, if the limited government folks tolerate their presence.

Just saying

Visitor

The home-page blurb describes this letter as "posthumous." Is Mr. Loberfeld deceased?

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