One doesn’t usually think of a book on political philosophy as an entertaining read, but “Against the State” by Crispin Sartwell is the exception. It is a book about libertarian political philosophy, which the author calls anarchism. He defines anarchism as a social order characterized not by force but by voluntary association. The distinction between minimal-government libertarian philosophy and anarchism is not explained. Perhaps it does not need to be explained.
Those who are familiar with the works of such anarchists as William Godwin, Emma Goldman, Lysander Spooner, and the late Murray Rothbard (a founding editor of Liberty) will find interesting insights on anarchism itself. Sartwell’s book is both interesting and entertaining, filled with perceptive insights and unusual comments. Sartwell has obviously been fighting in the ideological trenches and has, I assume, some scars derived from ad hominem attacks. “Everyone’s political philosophy,” he says, “is the result of a personality disorder.” It probably isn’t true, but it makes for an interesting turn of phrase.
Sartwell believes the state is not a legitimate institution because it rests not on voluntary association but on coercion and violence. This is not new to anyone familiar with the 19th-century works of Spooner or with such contemporary authors as Rothbard and Hans-Hermann Hoppe, but Sartwell’s logical exposition is an engaging discourse on difficult topics and authors. He takes aim at three political theories used to justify the existence of the state: contract theory, utilitarianism, and the theory he calls justicial justification.
Social contract is discussed, of course, with references to Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Hobbes. Sartwell explains the role and importance of “the state of nature” – conceived by Hobbes as a state in which life was “nasty, brutish, and short” – in supporting the argument for the social contract. He characterizes Hobbes’ state of nature as “a defense of European culture against an imagined critique by the savages of America” (43). The social contract theory in its classical form, provides for a process of “transcendence,” in which the state imparts a moral dimension to nature, by virtue of the fact that people have agreed – contracted – to erect a state. This, of course, is mythical nonsense. In reality, nature has not changed, and any theory based on such an idea is flawed from the very beginning.
In Sartwell’s view, government is simply part of the chaotic violence of the state of nature. There is no moral dimension to an institution based on violence and coercion. The clarity, simplicity and deftness with which Sartwell disposes of Hobbes’ assertions shows that he has been over this ground before.
An early critique of contract theory was provided by Edmund Burke, who offered another, essentially utilitarian, way of justifying the state, which it pictures as a means of constraining the viciousness of human nature. Sartwell asserts that this theory also fails to justify the state. It rests on a less theoretical more practical basis than contract theory, but “in fact this argument in its most general form is just another transformation of state power into an idol, into something that transcends the mere human beings who operate it. Otherwise its proponents would understand perfectly well that what they propose is no solution to the problem: to cure people of the selfishness and violence at our heart, we will heavily arm some of them and authorize them to restrain, imprison or execute others of them. If it is people you are authorizing this way you are liable to be exacerbating the problem of your own premise” (62).
Sartwell dismisses the currently fashionable rational choice theory, including that of libertarian Nobellaureate James Buchanan, “as a variety of contract theory” and “a hypothetical or idealized or utilitarian justification of state power: if there were no state, it would be Pareto-Optimal to invent one.” He stipulates that one way in which this theory “is different from classical utilitarianism is that it legitimates the state as a result of individual utility maximizing decisions rather than as a question of sheer greatest good for greatest number” (68). Nevertheless, it provides no security from the overwhelming force of the state. After quoting the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham at some length, Sartwell points out that his argument is more likely to “counsel resistance than obedience.”
Turning now to the third theory with which he finds himself at odds, the justicial justification of state power, Sartwell takes as his exemplar John Rawls, perhaps the most famous of contemporary political philosophers. Here, I believe, Sartwell should have argued seriously against Rawls’ proposition that state power can be justified by the state’s unique ability to redistribute wealth in a “just” manner. He seems to accept this proposition, though with the caveat that a state that has the power to distribute wealth is a power that “can at any given moment be turned to unjust purposes.” Instead he treats Rawls simply as an exemplar of modern utilitarian theory. “A Rawlsian just social system,” he says, with heavy verbal irony, “is justified in virtue of its justice and not by anyone’s actual consent to it” (76).
Ultimately, for Sartwell, all justifications for state power fail. We are left with the author’s view of a political philosophy based on anarchism by default. Sartwell does provide what he calls “a silhouette of anarchism” in. which he explains”self-sovereignty.” This idea is not new. Previous approaches, such as that of Hoppe, have proceeded to build a political philosophy from Locke’s assertion of self ownership. This seems a logical beginning, but Sartwell states that the individualistic philosophy of Thoreau and Emerson is his beginning point. It may.be the familiar argument, but now labeled “Thoreau” instead of “Locke.”
The author does admit that there is one individualist political theory that may work without resort to anarchism, the theory embodied in Randy Barnett’s “Restoring the Lost Constitution.” Barnett offers a libertarian interpretation of the Constitution as a document authorizing a very limited sphere of state activity. This, Sartwell indicates, might actually justify state power.
A serious flaw in this book is the author’s decision to defer a full exposition of the anarchist political philosophy to a future volume. Obviously this is the usual academic practice of publishing the same work over and over again under different titles, with slightly changed content. Perhaps academic tenure and promotion require this, but a full exposition of the author’s philosophy should have been included in this volume and not a future one.
Another flaw is that Sartwell fails to mention Walter Block, Hans-Hermann Hoppe, or Murray Rothbard, all of whom arrived at a political philosophy similar to his own by studying the work of Ludwig von Mises and the “Austrian” school of economics. I don’t know whether this omission results from choice or oversight. Nevertheless, political scientists, together with many libertarians who are not professionals in the field, will find this “introduction” to anarchism insightful and worthwhile.