Anarchism is accurately defined as simply the lack of a government. And government is at a fundamental level — organized, monopoly force. One could argue that there is basic anarchism in the international system, amongst national governments. The United Nations had no force to use against the United States after the U.S. declared War on Iraq in 2003– an action the former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan called “illegal.” In many ways, the United Nations is very libertarian in that it should only authorize actions in self-defense or for humanitarian reasons.
The following is one man’s road from modern day conservatism (which is basically big government and military corporatism) to libertarian, limited government constitutionalism (i.e. min-archism) and ultimately to anarcho-capitalism (anarchy with capitalism, i.e. with property rights). Anarcho-capitalism actually has deep historic and theoretical thought (next thing to learn).
My arrival (very recently) at philosophical anarchism has disturbed some of my conservative and Christian friends. In fact, it surprises me, going as it does against my own inclinations.
As a child I acquired a deep respect for authority and a horror of chaos. In my case the two things were blended by the uncertainty of my existence after my parents divorced and I bounced from one home to another for several years, often living with strangers. A stable authority was something I yearned for.
Meanwhile, my public-school education imbued me with the sort of patriotism encouraged in all children in those days. I grew up feeling that if there was one thing I could trust and rely on, it was my government. I knew it was strong and benign, even if I didn’t know much else about it. The idea that some people — Communists, for example — might want to overthrow the government filled me with horror…
You love your country as you love your mother — simply because it is *yours,* not because of its superiority to others, particularly superiority of power.
This seems axiomatic to me now, but it startled me when I first read it. After all, I was an American, and American patriotism typically expresses itself in superlatives. America is the freest, the mightiest, the richest, in short the *greatest* country in the world, with the greatest form of government — the most democratic. Maybe the poor Finns or Peruvians love their countries too, but heaven knows why — they have so little to be proud of, so few “reasons.” America is also the most *envied* country in the world. Don’t all people secretly wish they were Americans?
That was the kind of patriotism instilled in me as a boy, and I was quite typical in this respect. It was the patriotism of supremacy. For one thing, America had never lost a war — I was even proud that America had created the atomic bomb (providentially, it seemed, just in time to crush the Japs) — and this is why the Vietnam war was so bitterly frustrating. Not the dead, but the defeat! The end of history’s great winning streak!
As I grew up, my patriotism began to take another form, which it took me a long time to realize was in tension with the patriotism of power. I became a philosophical conservative, with a strong libertarian streak. I believed in government, but it had to be “limited” government — confined to a few legitimate purposes, such as defense abroad and policing at home. These functions, and hardly any others, I accepted, under the influence of writers like Ayn Rand and Henry Hazlitt, whose books I read in my college years…
In fact I much preferred a literary, contemplative conservatism to the activist sort that was preoccupied with immediate political issues. During the Reagan years, which I expected to find exciting, I found myself bored to death by supply-side economics, enterprise zones, “privatizing” welfare programs, and similar principle-dodging gimmickry. I failed to see that “movement” conservatives were less interested in principles than in Republican victories. To the extent that I did see it, I failed to grasp what it meant.
Still, the last thing I expected to become was an anarchist. For many years I didn’t even know that serious philosophical anarchists existed. I’d never heard of Lysander Spooner or Murray Rothbard. How could society survive at all without a state?
Now I began to be critical of the U.S. Government, though not very. I saw that the welfare state, chiefly the legacy of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, violated the principles of limited government and would eventually have to go. But I agreed with other conservatives that in the meantime the urgent global threat of Communism had to be stopped. Since I viewed “defense” as one of the proper tasks of government, I thought of the Cold War as a necessity, the overhead, so to speak, of freedom. If the Soviet threat ever ceased (the prospect seemed remote), we could afford to slash the military budget and get back to the job of dismantling the welfare state.
Somewhere, at the rainbow’s end, America would return to her founding principles. The Federal Government would be shrunk, laws would be few, taxes minimal. That was what I thought. Hoped, anyway…
Gradually I came to see that the conservative challenge to liberalism’s jurisprudence of “loose construction” was far too narrow. Nearly everything liberals wanted the Federal Government to do was unconstitutional. The key to it all, I thought, was the Tenth Amendment, which forbids the Federal Government to exercise any powers not specifically assigned to it in the Constitution. But the Tenth Amendment had been comatose since the New Deal, when Roosevelt’s Court virtually excised it.
This meant that nearly all Federal legislation from the New Deal to the Great Society and beyond had been unconstitutional. Instead of fighting liberal programs piecemeal, conservatives could undermine the whole lot of them by reviving the true (and, really, obvious) meaning of the Constitution. Liberalism depended on a long series of usurpations of power…
About the *general* meaning of the Constitution there could, I thought, be no doubt at all. The ruling principle is that whatever the Federal Government isn’t authorized to do, it’s forbidden to do.
That alone would invalidate the Federal welfare state and, in fact, nearly all liberal legislation. But I found it hard to persuade most conservatives of this…
I never thought a constitutional renaissance would be easy, but I did think it could play an indispensable role in subverting the legitimacy of liberalism. Movement conservatives listened politely to my arguments, but without much enthusiasm. They regarded appeals to the Constitution as rather pedantic and, as a practical matter, futile — not much help in the political struggle…
Of course they were right, in an obvious sense. Even conservative courts (if they could be captured) wouldn’t be bold enough to throw out the entire liberal legacy at once. But I remained convinced that the conservative movement had to attack liberalism at its constitutional root…
In the late 1980s I began mixing with Rothbardian libertarians — they called themselves by the unprepossessing label “anarcho-capitalists” — and even met Rothbard himself. They were a brilliant, combative lot, full of challenging ideas and surprising arguments. Rothbard himself combined a profound theoretical intelligence with a deep knowledge of history. His magnum opus, Man, Economy, and State, had received the most unqualified praise of the usually reserved Henry Hazlitt…
Murray died a few years ago without quite having made an anarchist of me. It was left to his brilliant disciple, Hans-Hermann Hoppe, to finish my conversion. Hans argued that no constitution could restrain the state. Once its monopoly of force was granted legitimacy, constitutional limits became mere fictions it could disregard; nobody could have the legal standing to enforce those limits. The state itself would decide, by force, what the constitution “meant,” steadily ruling in its own favor and increasing its own power. This was true a priori, and American history bore it out.
What if the Federal Government grossly violated the Constitution? Could states withdraw from the Union? Lincoln said no. The Union was “indissoluble” unless all the states agreed to dissolve it. As a practical matter, the Civil War settled that. The United States, plural, were really a single enormous state, as witness the new habit of speaking of “it” rather than “them.”
So the people are bound to obey the government even when the rulers betray their oath to uphold the Constitution. The door to escape is barred. Lincoln in effect claimed that it is not our rights but the state that is “unalienable.” And he made it stick by force of arms. No transgression of the Constitution can impair the Union’s inherited legitimacy. Once established on specific and limited terms, the U.S. Government is forever, even if it refuses to abide by those terms.
As Hoppe argues, this is the flaw in thinking the state can be controlled by a constitution. Once granted, state power naturally becomes absolute. Obedience is a one-way street. Notionally, “We the People” create a government and specify the powers it is allowed to exercise over us; our rulers swear before God that they will respect the limits we impose on them; but when they trample down those limits, our duty to obey them remains.
Yet even after the Civil War, certain scruples survived for a while. Americans still agreed in principle that the Federal Government could acquire new powers only by constitutional amendment. Hence the postwar amendments included the words “Congress shall have power to” enact such and such legislation.
But by the time of the New Deal, such scruples were all but defunct. Franklin Roosevelt and his Supreme Court interpreted the Commerce Clause so broadly as to authorize virtually any Federal claim, and the Tenth Amendment so narrowly as to deprive it of any inhibiting force. Today these heresies are so firmly entrenched that Congress rarely even asks itself whether a proposed law is authorized or forbidden by the Constitution.
In short, the U.S. Constitution is a dead letter. It was mortally wounded in 1865. The corpse can’t be revived. This remained hard for me to admit, and even now it pains me to say it.
Other things have helped change my mind. R.J. Rummel of the University of Hawaii calculates that in the twentieth century alone, states murdered about 162,000,000 million of their own subjects [the actual figure is 262 million]. This figure doesn’t include the tens of millions of foreigners they killed in war. How, then, can we speak of states “protecting” their people? No amount of private crime could have claimed such a toll. As for warfare, Paul Fussell’s book WARTIME portrays battle with such horrifying vividness that, although this wasn’t its intention, I came to doubt whether any war could be justified…
The essence of the state is its legal monopoly of force. But force is subhuman; in words I quote incessantly, Simone Weil defined it as “that which turns a person into a thing — either corpse or slave.” It may sometimes be a necessary evil, in self-defense or defense of the innocent, but nobody can have by right what the state claims: an exclusive privilege of using it.
It’s entirely possible that states — organized force — will always rule this world, and that we will have at best a choice among evils. And some states are worse than others in important ways: anyone in his right mind would prefer living in the United States to life under a Stalin. But to say a thing is inevitable, or less onerous than something else, is not to say it is good.
For most people, “anarchy” is a disturbing word, suggesting chaos, violence, antinomianism — things they hope the state can control or prevent. The term “state,” despite its bloody history, doesn’t disturb them. Yet it’s the state that is truly chaotic, because it means the rule of the strong and cunning. They imagine that anarchy would naturally terminate in the rule of thugs. But mere thugs can’t assert a plausible *right* to rule. Only the state, with its propaganda apparatus, can do that. This is what “legitimacy” means. Anarchists obviously need a more seductive label.
“But what would you replace the state with?” The question reveals an inability to imagine human society without the state. Yet it would seem that an institution that can take 200,000,000 lives within a century hardly needs to be “replaced.”
Christians, and especially Americans, have long been misled about all this by their good fortune. Since the conversion of Rome, most Western rulers have been more or less inhibited by Christian morality (though, often enough, not so’s you’d notice), and even warfare became somewhat civilized for centuries; and this has bred the assumption that the state isn’t necessarily an evil at all. But as that morality loses its cultural grip, as it is rapidly doing, this confusion will dissipate. More and more we can expect the state to show its nature nakedly.
For me this is anything but a happy conclusion. I miss the serenity of believing I lived under a good government, wisely designed and benevolent in its operation. But, as St. Paul says, there comes a time to put away childish things.