The Reluctant Anarchist

     

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.

G.K. Chesterton, with his usual gentle audacity, once criticized Rudyard Kipling for his “lack of patriotism.” Since Kipling was renowned for glorifying the British Empire, this might have seemed one of Chesterton’s “paradoxes”; but it was no such thing, except in the sense that it denied what most readers thought was obvious and incontrovertible.

Chesterton, himself a “Little Englander” and opponent of empire, explained what was wrong with Kipling’s view: “He admires England, but he does not love her; for we admire things with reasons, but love them without reason. He admires England because she is strong, not because she is English.” Which implies there would be nothing to love her for if she were weak.

Of course Chesterton was right. 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?

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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.

Though I disliked Rand’s atheism (at the time, I was irreligious, but not anti-religious), she had an odd appeal to my residual Catholicism. I had read enough Aquinas to respond to her Aristotelian mantras. Everything had to have its own nature and limitations, including the state; the idea of a state continually growing, knowing no boundaries, forever increasing its claims on the citizen, offended and frightened me. It could only end in tyranny.

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I was also powerfully drawn to Bill Buckley, an explicit Catholic, who struck the same Aristotelian note. During his 1965 race for mayor of New York, he made a sublime promise to the voter: he offered “the internal composure that comes of knowing there are rational limits to politics.” This may have been the most futile campaign promise of all time, but it would have won my vote!

It was really this Aristotelian sense of “rational limits,” rather than any particular doctrine, that made me a conservative. I rejoiced to find it in certain English writers who were remote from American conservatism — Chesterton, of course, Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, George Orwell, C.S. Lewis, Michael Oakeshott.

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.

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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 US 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.

I avidly read conservative and free-market literature during those years with the sense that I was, as a sort of late convert, catching up with the conservative movement. I took it for granted that other conservatives had already read the same books and had taken them to heart. Surely we all wanted the same things! At bottom, the knowledge that there were rational limits to politics. Good old Aristotle. At the time, it seemed a short hop from Aristotle to Barry Goldwater.

As is fairly well known by now, I went to work as a young man for Buckley at National Review and later became a syndicated columnist. I found my niche in conservative journalism as a critic of liberal distortions of the US Constitution, particularly in the Supreme Court’s rulings on abortion, pornography, and “freedom of expression.”

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.

Around the time of Judge Robert Bork’s bitterly contested (and defeated) nomination to the US Supreme Court, conservatives spent a lot of energy arguing that the “original intent” of the Constitution must be conclusive. But they applied this principle only to a few ambiguous phrases and passages that bore on specific hot issues of the day — the death penalty, for instance. 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.

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Joseph Sobran (1946–2010), conservative turned libertarian, was one of the most significant American writers of his time. See his website and his intellectual journey.