Are Libertarians 'Anarchists'?

Email Print


This article
was written in the mid-1950s under the byline “Aubrey Herbert,”
a pseudonym Rothbard used in the periodical Faith and Freedom.
It was never published.

The libertarian
who is happily engaged expounding his political philosophy in the
full glory of his convictions is almost sure to be brought short
by one unfailing gambit of the statist. As the libertarian is denouncing
public education or the Post Office, or refers to taxation as legalized
robbery, the statist invariably challenges. “Well, then are you
an anarchist?” The libertarian is reduced to sputtering
“No, no, of course I’m not an anarchist.” “Well, then, what governmental
measures do you favor? What type of taxes do you
wish to impose?” The statist has irretrievably gained the offensive,
and, having no answer to the first question, the libertarian finds
himself surrendering his case.

Thus, the libertarian
will usually reply: “Well, I believe in a limited government,
the government being limited to the defense of the person or property
or the individual against invasion by force or fraud.” I have tried
to show in my article, “The
Real Aggressor”
in the April 1954 Faith and Freedom
that this leaves the conservative helpless before the argument “necessary
for defense,” when it is used for gigantic measures of statism and
bloodshed. There are other consequences equally or more grave. The
statist can pursue the matter further: “If you grant that it is
legitimate for people to band together and allow the State to coerce
individuals to pay taxes for a certain service – “defense”
– why is it not equally moral and legitimate for people to
join in a similar way and allow the State the right to provide other
services – such as post offices, “welfare,” steel, power, etc.?
If a State supported by a majority can morally do one, why not morally
do the others?” I confess that I see no answer to this question.
If it is proper and legitimate to coerce an unwilling Henry Thoreau
into paying taxes for his own “protection” to a coercive state monopoly,
I see no reason why it should not be equally proper to force him
to pay the State for any other services, whether they be groceries,
charity, newspapers, or steel. We are left to conclude that the
pure libertarian must advocate a society where an individual may
voluntarily support none or any police or judicial agency that he
deems to be efficient and worthy of his custom.

I do not here
intend to engage in a detailed exposition of this system, but only
to answer the question, is this anarchism? This seemingly simple
question is actually a very difficult one to answer in a sentence,
or in a brief yes-or-no reply. In the first place, there is no accepted
meaning to the word “anarchism” itself. The average person may think
he knows what it means, especially that it is bad, but actually
he does not. In that sense, the word has become something like the
lamented word “liberal,” except that the latter has “good” connotations
in the emotions of the average man. The almost insuperable distortions
and confusions have come both from the opponents and the adherents
of anarchism. The former have completely distorted anarchist tenets
and made various fallacious charges, while the latter have been
split into numerous warring camps with political philosophies that
are literally as far apart as communism and individualism. The situation
is further confused by the fact that, often, the various anarchist
groups themselves did not recognize the enormous ideological conflict
between them.

very popular charge against anarchism is that it “means chaos.”
Whether a specific type of anarchism would lead to “chaos” is a
matter for analysis; no anarchist, however, ever deliberately wanted
to bring about chaos. Whatever else he or she may have been, no
anarchist has ever deliberately willed chaos or world destruction.
Indeed, anarchists have always believed that the establishment of
their system would eliminate the chaotic elements now troubling
the world. One amusing incident, illuminating this misconception,
occurred after the end of the war when a young enthusiast for world
government wrote a book entitled One World or Anarchy,
and Canada’s leading anarchist shot back with a work entitled Anarchy
or Chaos.

The major difficulty
in any analysis of anarchism is that the term covers extremely conflicting
doctrines. The root of the word comes from the term anarche,
meaning opposition to authority or commands. This is broad enough
to cover a host of different political doctrines. Generally these
doctrines have been lumped together as “anarchist” because of their
common hostility to the existence of the State, the coercive monopolist
of force and authority. Anarchism arose in the 19th century, and
since then the most active and dominant anarchist doctrine has been
that of “anarchist communism.” This is an apt tern for a doctrine
which has also been called “collectivist anarchism,” “anarcho-syndicalism,”
and “libertarian communism.” We may term this set of related doctrines
“left-wing anarchism.” Anarchist communism is primarily of Russian
origin, forged by Prince Peter Kropotkin and Michael Bakunin, and
it is this form that has connoted “anarchism” throughout the continent
of Europe.

The principal
feature of anarchist communism is that it attacks private property
just as vigorously as it attacks the State. Capitalism is considered
as much of a tyranny, “in the economic realm,” as the State in the
political realm. The left-wing anarchist hates capitalism and private
property with perhaps even more fervor than does the socialist or
Communist. Like the Marxists, the left-wing anarchist is convinced
that the capitalists exploit and dominate the workers, and also
that the landlords invariably are exploiting peasants. The economic
views of the anarchists present them with a crucial dilemma, the
pons asinorum of left-wing anarchy: how can capitalism
and private property be abolished, while the State is abolished
at the same time? The socialists proclaim the glory of the State,
and the use of the State to abolish private property – for
them the dilemma does not exist. The orthodox Marxist Communist,
who pays lip service to the ideal of left-wing anarchy, resolves
the dilemma by use of the Hegelian dialectic: that mysterious process
by which something is converted into its opposite. The Marxists
would enlarge the State to the maximum and abolish capitalism, and
then sit back confidently to wait upon the State’s “withering away.”

The spurious
logic of the dialectic is not open to the left-wing anarchists,
who wish to abolish the State and capitalism simultaneously. The
nearest those anarchists have come to resolving the problem has
been to uphold syndicalism as the ideal. In syndicalism, each group
of workers and peasants is supposed to own its means of production
in common, and plan for itself, while cooperating with other collectives
and communes. Logical analysis of these schemes would readily show
that the whole program is nonsense. Either of two things would occur:
one central agency would plan for and direct the various subgroups,
or the collectives themselves would be really autonomous. But the
crucial question is whether these agencies would be empowered to
use force to put their decisions into effect. All of the left-wing
anarchists have agreed that force is necessary against recalcitrants.
But then the first possibility means nothing more nor less than
Communism, while the second leads to a real chaos of diverse and
clashing Communisms, that would probably lead finally to some central
Communism after a period of social war. Thus, left-wing anarchism
must in practice signify either regular Communism or a true chaos
of communistic syndics. In both cases, the actual result must be
that the State is reestablished under another name. It
is the tragic irony of left-wing anarchism that, despite the hopes
of its supporters, it is not really anarchism at all. It is either
Communism or chaos.

It is no wonder
therefore that the term “anarchism” has received a bad press. The
leading anarchists, particularly in Europe, have always been of
the left-wing variety, and today the anarchists are exclusively
in the left-wing camp. Add to that the tradition of revolutionary
violence stemming from European conditions, and it is little wonder
that anarchism is discredited. Anarchism was politically very powerful
in Spain, and during the Spanish Civil War, anarchists established
communes and collectives wielding coercive authority. One of their
first steps was to abolish the use of money on the pain of a death
penalty. It is obvious that the supposed anarchist hatred of coercion
had gone very much awry. The reason was the insoluble contradiction
between the antistate and the antiproperty tenets of left-wing anarchy.

How is it,
then, that despite the fatal logical contradictions in left-wing
anarchism, there are a highly influential group of British intellectuals
who currently belong to this school, including the art critic Sir
Herbert Read, and the psychiatrist Alex Comfort? The answer is that
anarchists, perhaps unconsciously seeing the hopelessness of their
position, have made a point of rejecting logic and reason entirely.
They stress spontaneity, emotions, instincts, rather than allegedly
cold and inhuman logic. By so doing, they can of course remain blind
to the irrationality of their position. Of economics, which would
show them the impossibility of their system, they are completely
ignorant, perhaps more so than any other group of political theorists.
The dilemma about coercion they attempt to resolve by the absurd
theory that crime would simply disappear if the State were abolished,
so that no coercion would have to be used. Irrationality indeed
permeates almost all of the views of the left-wing anarchists. They
reject industrialism as well as private property, and tend to favor
returning to the handicraft and simple peasant conditions or the
Middle Ages. They are fanatically in favor of modern art, which
they consider “anarchist” art. They have an intense hatred of money
and of material improvements. Living a simple peasant existence,
in communes, is extolled as “living the anarchist life,” while a
civilized person is supposed to be viciously bourgeois and unanarchist.
Thus, the ideas of the left-wing anarchists have become a nonsensical
jumble, far more irrational than that of the Marxists, and deservedly
looked upon with contempt by almost everyone as hopelessly “crackpot.”
Unfortunately the result is that the good criticisms that they sometimes
make of State tyranny tend to be tarred with the same “crackpot”

the dominant anarchists, it is obvious that the question “are libertarians
anarchists?” must be answered unhesitatingly in the negative. We
are at completely opposite poles. Confusion enters, however, because
of the existence in the past, particularly in the United States,
of a small but brilliant group of “individualist anarchists” headed
by Benjamin R. Tucker. Here we come to a different breed. The individualist
anarchists have contributed a great deal to libertarian thought.
They have provided some of the best statements of individualism
and antistatism that have ever been penned. In the political
sphere, the individualist anarchists were generally sound libertarians.
They favored private property, extolled free competition, and battled
all forms of governmental intervention. Politically, the Tucker
anarchists had two principal defects: (1) they failed to advocate
defense of private landholdings beyond what the owner used personally;
(2) they relied too heavily on juries and failed to see the necessity
for a body of constitutional libertarian law which the private courts
would have to uphold.

to their minor political failings, however, they fell into grievous
economic error. They believed that interest and profit were exploitative,
due to an allegedly artificial restriction on the money supply.
Let the State and its monetary regulations be removed, and free
banking be established, they believed, and everyone would print
as much money as he needed, and interest and profits would fall
to zero. This hyperinflationist doctrine, acquired from the Frenchman
Proudhon, is economic nonsense. We must remember, however, that
“respectable” economics, then and now, has been permeated with inflationist
errors, and very few economists have grasped the essentials of monetary
phenomena. The inflationists simply take the more genteel inflationism
of fashionable economics and courageously push it to its logical

The irony of
this situation was that while the individualist anarchists laid
great stress on their nonsensical banking theories, their political
order that they advocated would have led to economic results directly
contrary to what they believed. They thought that free banking would
lead to indefinite expansion of the money supply, whereas the truth
is precisely the reverse: it would lead to “hard money” and absence
of inflation. The economic fallacies of the Tuckerites, however,
are of a completely different order than those of the collectivist
anarchists. The errors of the collectivists led them to advocate
virtual political Communism, while the economic errors of the individualists
still permitted them to advocate a nearly libertarian system. The
superficial might easily confuse the two, because the individualists
were led to attack “capitalists,” whom they felt were exploiting
the workers through State restriction of the money supply.

These “right-wing”
anarchists did not take the foolish position that crime would disappear
in the anarchist society. Yet they did tend to underestimate the
crime problem, and as a result never recognized the need for a fixed
libertarian constitution. Without such a constitution, the private
judicial process might become truly “anarchic” in the popular sense.

The Tucker
wing of anarchism flourished in the 19th century, but died out by
World War I. Many libertarian thinkers in that Golden Age of liberalism
were working on doctrines that were similar in many respects. These
genuine libertarians never referred to themselves as anarchists,
however; probably the main reason was that all the anarchist groups,
even the right-wingers, possessed socialistic economic
doctrines in common.

Here we should
note still a third variety of anarchist thought, one completely
different from either the collectivists or individualists. This
is the absolute pacifism of Leo Tolstoy. This preaches a society
where force would not even be used to defend person and property,
whether by State or private organizations. Tolstoy’s program of
nonviolence has influenced many alleged pacifists today, mainly
through Gandhi, but the latter do not realize that there can be
no genuinely complete pacifism unless the State and other defense
agencies are eliminated. This type of anarchism, above all others,
rests on an excessively idealistic view of human nature. It could
only work in a community of saints.

must conclude that the question “are libertarians anarchists?” simply
cannot be answered on etymological grounds. The vagueness of the
term itself is such that the libertarian system would be considered
anarchist by some people and archist by others. We must therefore
turn to history for enlightenment; here we find that none of the
proclaimed anarchist groups correspond to the libertarian position,
that even the best of them have unrealistic and socialistic elements
in their doctrines. Furthermore, we find that all of the current
anarchists are irrational collectivists, and therefore at opposite
poles from our position. We must therefore conclude that we are
not anarchists, and that those who call us anarchists are
not on firm etymological ground, and are being completely unhistorical.
On the other hand, it is clear that we are not archists
either: we do not believe in establishing a tyrannical central authority
that will coerce the noninvasive as well as the invasive. Perhaps,
then, we could call ourselves by a new name: nonarchist.
Then, when, in the jousting of debate, the inevitable challenge
“are you an anarchist?” is heard, we can, for perhaps the first
and last time, find ourselves in the luxury of the “middle of the
road” and say, “Sir, I am neither an anarchist nor an archist, but
am squarely down the nonarchic middle of the road.”

N. Rothbard
(1926–1995) was the author of Man,
Economy, and State
, Conceived
in Liberty
, What
Has Government Done to Our Money
, For
a New Liberty
, The
Case Against the Fed
, and many
other books and articles
. He was
also the editor – with Lew Rockwell – of The
Rothbard-Rockwell Report

Rothbard Archives

Email Print