The Problem With Anarchism

Over the past couple of years I have noticed a number of libertarians changing their political outlook and instead of identifying themselves as libertarians they now see themselves as anarchists.

The argument tends to run along these lines – the state is a problem at the very least, and libertarians want people to be freer. So why not go the whole hog and advocate the abolition of the state and of government altogether? Indeed, isn’t the libertarian position inherently contradictory and self-defeating since it paints the state as bad yet still argues that at some level the state needs to exist at the same time as saying that individual freedom is a key aim of politics while believing at some point that some people must have power over others?

It is a persuasive argument that, for me, just doesn’t quite work as it fails the realism test. I don’t believe that if you remove the state from the equation you will get a perfect utopia, and one of the key problems is the reality of human nature (a question that underpins and informs many ideologies and political theories).

I won’t buy into the crude binary division of seeing humanity as either naturally good or intrinisically bad. My own view is that individuals are capable of great acts of goodness while simultaneously being capable of acts of appalling evil. As such, complete autonomy and absolute freedom can be a real blessing and a horrific curse. Furthermore, I also think that the root of many acts of evil is actually an attempt to be good – Marxism being a classic example. The problem is that humans are by nature fallible. This means that anything they create – including the state, markets, communities and so on – will have some flaws. It also means the actions of individuals are also often flawed, with a whole raft of unintended consequences often emerging from philanthropic acts. This is why the state is a problem, especially as it becomes monolithic, bureaucratic and increasingly intrusive in the lives of its citizens. Its actions, even if they have benign intentions, may well end up being harmful if not deeply destructive. Hence the need to limit the reach of that state.

But equally there is a need to limit the freedom of individuals given their actions can often be – intentionally or otherwise – mendacious, flawed and harmful to others. A classic example of this is when it comes to crime. Remove the state completely then you run the risk of people committing crimes – such as murder – without retribution. Of course, you can empower other institutions to exact that retribution, but there are no guarantees that such a community would not end up exercising power in the arbitrary way that the state often does. And any argument that human nature would change and become better/nicer/more generous if the state disappeared altogether is purely utopian – just look at the brutal war zones that happen when a state collapses.

Therefore, the fallibility of humans makes the state both an essential while simultaneously making it a big problem. Which, I suppose, does make the libertarian arguments about the state contradictory but – crucially – not self-defeating. Libertarianism is, in my view anyway, an example of realism – it accepts the flaws of humanity, and builds a political outlook around it at the same time. And yes, there are problems around the limits of libertaranism – in a vastly reduced state, where does the limits of state control lie on controversial issues such as incest, intervention to prevent monoplies and international intervention? In a sense, it is far easier to be a libertarian at the moment as there is no shortage of areas to attack the ever-growing state on. However, if a libertarian government had radically rolled back the frontiers of the state, then we would be left with messy argument over what should fall under the umbrella of legisaltion and what definitely shouldn’t. In a sense, anarchism lacks this messiness – just get rid of the state altogether is the mantra and core policy.

But we keep coming back to the question of human nature and the fallibility of our own species, and it is here that I depart from much of what passes as anarchism. I would love for an anarchist to explain to me how this problem can be overcome, but I won’t hold my breath.

To point out the flaws of anarchism is not to deny their are problems in libertarianism, and it is worth noting that both ideologies are radical in that they don’t automatically defer to the state and to state intervention when it comes to each and every problem we face. Libertarianism wins out for me as it is more in tune with reality – I believe we need a state (even if it is nothing more than a minarchist nightwatchman state) even though the state will always be a troubling concept.

Basically, life isn’t simple; it is complex, messy and filled with compromises and contradictions. Libertarianism reflects that in a way that the more utopian anarchism does not.

12 comments for “The Problem With Anarchism

  1. JonP
    June 25, 2011 at 12:28 pm

    Anarchy is pretty much where the human race started and throwing away thousands of years of “progress” just to start again seems kinda pointless to me. Imagine having to live through the brutality of anarchy, tribalism, feudalism and so on again – as that’s probably what would happen – just to probably end up more or less back where we are now.

    I agree that the current system is flawed but society should be trying to improve it to make it fairer and reduce government to the bare minimum. It’s a balance of personal freedom against the need for a (large) population to be efficiently managed and that needs a government.

    So in short, yeah, I pretty much agree with you!

  2. June 25, 2011 at 1:50 pm

    This is why you will see that many of us self identify as minarchists. I read an essay once by L Ron Hubbard (yes, the very same) about freedoms and barriers. In it, he was making the same essential point; that too much freedom may well lead to less freedom for weaker individuals. That in order to allow liberty to flourish, there needs to be some restriction. That’s why we have the rule of law and it’s why most libertarian types favour the idea of the rule of law – even if “less freedom equals more freedom” does appear counter intuitive to the overall ideology.

  3. June 25, 2011 at 2:29 pm

    Libertarianism in this country owes a huge amount to the internet, which has massively increased the availability of information and the contact between America and here. It is very influenced by American libertarian thought, much of the best of which is from an anarcho-libertarian point of view, therefore it’s not surprising, as libertarianism here has grown, and people explore the ideas to a greater depth, that they choose to differentiate themselves with more subtlety.

    People come to libertarianism via different routes. Some people just don’t like being told what to do, and leave the theorising to others. They are not interested in how many Rothbards can dance on the head of a pin. Others, like me, are more bookish and seek a solid philosophical foundation, so that when a contentious issue arises – usually a clash between two sets of competing ‘rights’ – they can see the wood for the trees.

    I would class myself a minarchist, and see any dispute between minarchists and anarchists, providing there is an agreement on basic principle, as idle disputes until such a time as we have achieved the massive roll-back of state power that a minimal state would signify.

    As to whether anarchism is utopian, I recall something Walter Block pointed out when asked to give examples of anarchism, that whenever two people engage in a free exchange, there is such an example. If you look at the entirety of human action, and distinguish two spheres; one, the voluntary sphere and the other the coercive, involuntary sphere, then the task of libertarians is to shrink the latter and extend the former.

    The most important thing for both anarchists and minarchists is that we don’t spend all our time arguing amongst ourselves, but rather take action to advance our shared agenda. The movement in this country is still very young (not ignoring its deep roots or the few John the Baptist figures who’ve been out in the desert all along), and people are learning as they go along, so we should all try to avoid getting too sectarian.

    • Edgar
      June 25, 2011 at 4:01 pm

      You spoke extensively about ‘individuals’. For a libertarian, I suppose, that is natural. Whether the evil of individuals outweighs the evil of governments is probably the pivot point. The former might be widespread, but will always be small-scale. The latter can enslave whole nations. Neither can effectively be controlled, but I suggest that the former is more easily contained.

      • Edgar
        June 25, 2011 at 4:02 pm

        Apologies, TT, I meant this as a separate post, not as a reply to yours.

  4. Hon
    June 25, 2011 at 2:36 pm

    The state as it is today is just the evolution of a tribal leader thousands of years ago into a king and then a president or prime minister. If a big government was abolished we would just have many many smaller states, some consisting of one person. Eventually, a group of people living together might decide to elect someone as leader and agree on a way to contribute to a common pool. And then they might decide to use force to take over another group of people living nearby. … then we have a big government again.

    The problem with the state today is that we can’t just leave. Scotland may leave the UK, so why can’t I and some of my neighbours leave and form our own state?

  5. bnzss
    June 25, 2011 at 4:12 pm

    ‘Basically, life isn’t simple; it is complex, messy and filled with compromises and contradictions. Libertarianism reflects that in a way that the more utopian anarchism does not.’

    An anarchist would argue that given these things, and given the fallibility of individuals, why oh why would it make any sense to give these people more power? Surely spreading it out as this as possible, i.e. to the level of the individual, is the best way to mitigate the problem?

    Secondly, it rather depends from which angle you approach it. I don’t think the difference between anarchism and libertarianism is as important as that between deontological libertarianism and utilitarian libertarianism, especially when it comes to terms of debate and frames of reference. You’ve written this article with, at the least, a consequentialist undertone – as evidenced by your describing anarchism as ‘utopian’ – which is fine, I suppose, and thus you’re demanding similar reasoning to justify anarchy. No doubt there are anarcho-capitalists who could argue that anarchy would have the best results, better than minarchy even (usually economists), but I strongly suspect most would rather argue from a Kantian ‘is this *right*?’ basis, which has not been addressed here.

    • June 25, 2011 at 4:49 pm

      Dude, you couldn’t dumb that down a little for the average reader, could you?

    • June 25, 2011 at 9:14 pm

      I think I am writing, and tend to write, from very much a realist perspective. The idealism that I personally associate with Kant is great from a rarified purely philosophical position, and the categorical imperative is a fine ideal, but the reality of life does not necessarily support such idealism. Which, I suppose, is what I want from anarchism – an understanding of that relates their ideals with reality. A realist anarchism, if you like. I haven’t come across such an anarchism, but I would be very interested to learn more about it.

      • bnzss
        July 7, 2011 at 2:59 pm

        Apologies, I didn’t see your reply before now! I think you’re generally right, overall. I tend to take a utilitarian view of these things (this is what I’m taking ‘realist’ to mean anyway!) so will, like you, judge a doctrine based on what I reckon its results and shortcomings may be. This is why I generally lean away from ancap and towards minarchy. But I would say that you could compare, say, Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard’s vaguely anarchist doctrines and conclude that one is more or less going for a rights-based anti-state argument, and the other for a more economics-based anti-state argument. Maybe.

        Obviously in practice we all use a mixture of the two, but in general anarcho-capitalists will prefer to argue whether or not something is right then deal with its consequences later, which is a whole argument in itself.

  6. June 25, 2011 at 11:02 pm

    Why I’m a classical liberal/minarchist and not an Anarchist:

  7. June 26, 2011 at 12:34 pm

    Well, I now consider myself an anarchist… so I suppose I am one of those about whom you speak.
    However, I would not describe myself as even vaguely utopian. For sure, bad things will happen without the state, but bad things happen already. The question of whether more bad things will happen or will more bad things be prevented, and indeed whether they should be prevented at all, is perhaps where the debate should be focused.
    the progression of no state-chieftain-mafia-king-social democracy is one I have given a lot of thought to, though.

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