I wrote the following defense of libertarianism and sent it to Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed, but I am not aware that it was ever printed. I placed it on my first Web page, some time in the mid-1990s, and it was grabbed by a gentleman with an intense interest in anarchy, and placed on his site. I reprint it here because it is not completely horrible, and it shows my long-standing interests and characteristic debating techniques.
Only a hopelessly marginal thinker could describe Libertarianism as a “mainstream movement”; but this absurdity is nowhere near as silly as the bulk of the other assertions in Peter Sabatini’s “Libertarianism: Bogus Anarchy” (Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed, #41). Though it would be a waste of time to point out everything wrong in this sad “Sad Truth” column, the main thrust of the article deserves comment.
I’ll start with Sabatini at his most witless: “Libertarianism is not anarchism. Some Libertarians readily admit this. For example, Ayn Rand, the radical egoist, expressly disavows the communal individuality of Stirner in favor of liberalism’s stark individualism. Plus Robert Nozick makes pointed reference to the U.S. individualist anarchists, and summarily dismisses them.” As anybody who is at all familiar with contemporary libertarianism knows, libertarians do not agree on the ideal political-legal constitution of the free society: some libertarians describe themselves as anarchists (Murray Rothbard, David Friedman, and Pierre Lemieux, to name three) while others call themselves advocates of the “minimal state” (Rand, John Hospers, and Nozick — prior to his abandonment of libertarianism). Libertarianism is a range of opinion about the proper limitations of coercion in society. The most that a libertarian could say about the relation between libertarianism and anarchism is that many libertarians describe themselves as anarchists and that this form of anarchism maintains a dominant intellectual position in the libertarian movement, in part because of the rigorous way it seems to follow from the moral principles most libertarians say they support (i.e., that “no one has the right to initiate force”). Sure, many libertarians reject anarchism. But what does this prove about those who do not reject anarchism? Nothing, of course.
Though Sabatini concedes (amidst much blather about libertarians’ motives) that the “main issue” is “the actual substance” of libertarian “dogma,” he can’t bring himself to sustain a discussion of substantive libertarian doctrine, anarchist or otherwise. Merely characterizing Rothbard’s anarchism as a scheme that replaces the “public state” with “countless private states” is enough for Sabatini; he immediately shifts the subject to economic inequality, and continues the misdirection by asserting that “when Rothbard . . . draw(s) upon individualist anarchism, he is always highly selective about what he pulls out.” Now, I would normally say that being selective is on the whole a good thing, but the example of Sabatini suggests the dangers. Though Sabatini asserts that individualist anarchism’s principles are “anti-Libertarian,” it is simply outrageous to suggest (even if only by neglect) that Rothbard differs from individualist anarchists such as Spooner and Tucker on the issue of competitive police forces and courts: on this idea, so maligned by Sabatini, Rothbard is at one with his forebears. Indeed, contrary to Sabatini, anarchist-communists of Tucker’s day ridiculed the individualists for attempting to “put government on a business footing.” (Sabatini’s whitewashing of the disagreements between the anarchist camps is either extremely dishonest or evidence of an astounding ignorance.)
To be fair to the late Prof. Rothbard, we should note that he actually bothered to argue against those individualist anarchist notions he disagreed with, at least as it concerns monetary theory. Tucker and Spooner and, from what I can tell, most of their fellow American individualists not only believed in the absurd labor theory of value, but also held extremely naive notions about the nature of money and banking. Much of the anti-capitalist “feel” of individualist anarchism stems from bad economics, which Rothbard — a clear stylist and sometimes astute economist — laid neatly to rest.
Still, Sabatini is probably right to identify modern libertarianism — even in its radical, anarchistic varieties — more with classical liberalism than with individualist anarchism. After all, anarcho-capitalism was first espoused (though not by that name) in nearly its modern form [before] 1850 by Belgian economist Gustave de Molinari. Molinari was self-consciously a liberal, he proudly proclaimed Adam Smith and Jean-Baptiste Say as his predecessors, and his watchwords were private property, “laissez faire” and limited government. Extremely limited government. He thought socialism a great destroyer of civilization, and dismissed self-described anarchists as economically illiterate. He noted that the services of government, previously organized monopolistically (and thus doing great harm as well as some good) were in his time being turned over to the ungainly communism of “democracy”; he believed that these democratic experiments, like all large-scale communisms, were doomed to fail. He conjectured that someday the “production of security” would be limited by the regime of market competition, and that the routine injustices of politics and law — the casual plunderings, the massive intrusions, the grinding inefficiencies, the deadening regulations, the whole morass of coercive intervention — would be checked and balanced by the uncomfortable but ultimately fruitful discipline of the regime of contract.
I am not convinced of this position. On the issue of the feasibility and desirability of “anarchy” — or “competitive government” or “demonopolized states” or whatever — I remain agnostic. Though I came to libertarianism through an interest in the anarchisms of Proudhon and Kropotkin, I soon found the more liberal, less radical vision of man espoused by modern libertarian thinkers to track much closer to reality than did the romantic, loopy optimisms of the nineteenth-century anarchists. How far should the state be peeled back? I don’t know. I remain more confident of the direction I think society should go than of the distance. And contrary to Sabatini’s account of libertarianism’s attraction, my deepest social concerns have never had much to do with the anxieties and alienations of capitalism. My chief concern has always been the necessity of limiting coercion and the dangers associated with collectivized identity, that is, with in-group/out-group dynamics — on every level, but most importantly when combined with legitimized coercion.
I judge these preoccupations compatible with the spirit of anarchism. But if writers in Anarchy are any guide, I am very wrong: apparently hatred of inequality and disgust with market co-operation are the real issues, and a wholesale critique of every aspect of our civilization the best test of anarchist temper. If true, I sadly part company with the movement. But if anarchy’s watchwords remain freedom and voluntary community (rather than coercion and compulsory community) then I have a bit of advice for Mr. Sabatini and his fellow critics of those who call themselves libertarians: talk with us, acknowledge our common ground, try to enlighten us on issues where you think we fail. And don’t marginalize yourself with hysterical attempts to “out” those who have one foot in the door. For though we may wind up limping, you wind up shut in. Voluntarily.