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.