Objectivism vs. Anarchism

Reprinted from The Objectivist Forum, August 1981.
Material added, July 20, 2011.

Q: A government has a legal monopoly on the use of physical force within its borders. What is the answer to the “libertarian” anarchists who claim that to maintain this monopoly a government must initiate force in violation of the rights of those who wish to defend their own rights or to compete with the government by setting up private agencies to do so?

A: The anarchist claim merits discussion only to illustrate the sort of self-defeating contradictions generated by anti-philosophical movements, of which the so-called “libertarians” are a prime example.

A proper government is restricted to the protection of individual rights against violation by force or the threat of force. A proper government functions according to objective, philosophically validated procedures, as embodied in its entire legal framework, from its constitution down to its narrowest rules and ordinances. Once such a government, or anything approaching it, has been established, there is no such thing as a “right” to “compete” with the government—i.e., to act as judge, jury, and executioner. Nor does one gain such a “right” by joining with others to go into the “business” of wielding force.

To carry out its function of protecting individual rights, the government must forcibly bar others from using force in ways that threaten the citizens’ rights. Private force is force not authorized by the government, not validated by its procedural safeguards, and not subject to its supervision.

The government has to regard such private force as a threat—i.e., as a potential violation of individual rights. In barring such private force, the government is retaliating against that threat.

Note that a proper government does not prohibit a man from using force to defend himself in an emergency, when recourse to the government is not available; but it does, properly, require him to prove objectively, at a trial, that he was acting in emergency self-defense. Similarly, the government does not ban private guards; but it does, properly, bring private guards under its supervision by licensing them, and does not grant them any special rights or immunities: they remain subject to the government’s authority and legal procedures.

The attempt to invoke individual rights to justify “competing” with the government collapses at the first attempt to concretize what it would mean in reality. Picture a band of strangers marching down Main Street, submachine guns at the ready. When confronted by the police, the leader of the band announces: “Me and the boys are only here to see that justice is done, so you have no right to interfere with us.” According to the “libertarian” anarchists, in such a confrontation the police are morally bound to withdraw, on pain of betraying the rights of self-defense and free trade.

Regarding the purported betrayal, one can only respond: if this be treason, make the most of it.

In fact, of course, there is no conflict between individual rights and outlawing private force: there is no right to the arbitrary use of force. No political or moral principle could require the police to stand by helplessly while others use force arbitrarily—i.e., according to whatever private notions of justice they happen to hold.

“There is only one basic principle to which an individual must consent if he wishes to live in a free, civilized society: the principle of renouncing the use of physical force and delegating to the government his right of physical self-defense, for the purpose of an orderly, objective, legally defined enforcement. Or, to put it another way, he must accept the separation of force and whim (any whim, including his own.)” (Ayn Rand, “The Nature of Government,” The Virtue of Selfishness)

The basic questions that the anti-philosophical “libertarians” ignore or evade are: what is the nature and source of individual rights, and how are these rights to be implemented? Only by answering these questions can one proceed to consider what is or is not proper self-defense in concrete cases.

But the answers to these questions are far from self-evident. To establish even the general principles on which the detailed, concrete administration of justice depends requires political and legal philosophy (and the metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics these fields presuppose). The “libertarians” take a short-cut: they plagiarize Ayn Rand’s principle that no man may initiate the use of physical force, and treat it as a mystically revealed, out-of-context absolute. This one principle, deprived of its philosophical base, is expected to replace jurisprudence, constitutions, legislatures, and courts. Then they imagine that the rest of us are obligated to accept, on faith, any gang’s promise that their use of force will be “retaliatory.”

Bear in mind that, in fact, those who would be granted the right to enforce their own notions of just retaliation include leftists who consider government intervention in the economy to be retaliation against business activities that the leftists view as “economic force.” Then there are the terrorist groups who claim that random slaughter is “retaliation” against “Zionist imperialism,” “British rule,” etc. Are we to assume that the country will have been converted to “libertarianism” before anarchism is instituted? Very well. One wing of the “libertarians” holds abortion to be murder; in their view, force against women who have abortions is retaliation in defense of the right to life. Another wing welcomed the New Left rioters of the 1960’s, including the Black Panthers, as liberators who were retaliating against “state coercion.” How will the principle of no initiated force—in a philosophical vacuum—resolve disputes of that kind?

In any society, disputes over who has the right to what are inescapable. Even strictly rational men will have disagreements of this kind, and the possibility of human irrationality, which is inherent in free will, multiplies the number of such disputes.

The issue, then is: how are political and legal disputes to be settled: by might or by right—by street fighting or by the application of objective, philosophically validated procedures?

The most twisted evasion of the “libertarian” anarchists in this context is their view that disputes concerning rights could be settled by “competition” among private force-wielders on the “free market.” This claim represents a staggering stolen concept: there is no free market until after force has been excluded. Their approach cannot be applied even to a baseball game, where it would mean that the rules of the game will be defined by whoever wins it. This has not prevented the “libertarian” anarchists from speaking of “the market for liberty” (i.e., the market for the market).

By their talk of “competition” in the context of government, these “libertarian” anarchists endorse the statists’ equation of production and force (see “The Nature of Government”). “Competition” is an economic, not a political, concept; it refers to the voluntary exchange of values, not to the exchange of gunfire.

Behind the puerile fantasies of “market solutions” to political and legal disputes lies the collectivist notion that the ideas of the individual are determined by social institutions, so that once the “proper” social institutions have been established, “the people” will automatically agree on political and legal issues, and government will no longer be necessary. In the Marxist version of anarchism, once a socialist economy has “conditioned” men to altruism, they will automatically act according to the principle “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” In the “libertarian” version, once a capitalist economy has been established, rational selfishness will become automatic, and “the market” will act to resolve whatever short-lived disputes still arise. In the words of one of the “libertarians”: “Legislation forcing the parties [in a dispute] to submit to binding arbitration would be unnecessary, since each party would find arbitration to be in his own self-interest. Nor would it be necessary to have legal protection for the rights of all involved, because the structure of the market situation would protect them.”

In any irreconcilable dispute, at least one party will find that its view of justice is stymied. Even under anarchy, only one side will be able to enforce its ideas of where the right lies. But it does not occur to the anarchists that when one of their private “defense agencies” uses force, it is acting as a “monopolist” over whomever it coerces. It does not occur to them that private, anarchistic force is still force—i.e., the “monopolistic” subjection of another’s will to one’s own. They are aware of and object to the forcible negation of “competing” viewpoints only when it is done by a government.

Thus, their actual objection to government is not to its “monopolistic” character, but to the fact that “A government is the means of placing the retaliatory use of physical force under objective control—i.e., under objectively defined laws.” (“The Nature of Government”)

The real target of the anarchist’s attack is objectivity. Objectivity requires one to prove that one is acting within one’s rights; they do not want to be held accountable to anyone for anything—not even regarding their use of physical force. They damn governmental retaliation because it is objective; they demand to be “free” to use force on whim.

In the philosophical battle for a free society, the one crucial connection to be upheld is that between capitalism and reason. The religious conservatives are seeking to tie capitalism to mysticism; the “libertarians” are tying capitalism to the whim-worshipping subjectivism and chaos of anarchy.

To cooperate with either group is to betray capitalism, reason, and one’s own future.

[Added July 20, 2011]

There are two further, though lesser, arguments for anarchism that I also want to answer.

The first might be called “the argument from moral freedom.” This argument holds that it is wrong to impose morality by force, and that government, as a monopoly, necessarily does this, since it is on moral grounds that it prohibits “competitors.” The alternative to imposing morality by force, these anarchists claim, is letting a thousand flowers bloom—i.e., non-monopolizing “defense agencies,” each attracting, voluntarily, “customers” who patronize whichever agency has the moral outlook they find most congenial.

But this ignores the fact that our subject here is not the hiring of fruit-pickers or programmers but the hiring of gunmen. Terms drawn from the realm of voluntary trade, such as “competition” and “customers,” do not apply to transactions whose purpose is to command obedience. The purpose of the hired guns is precisely to establish a monopoly over human interactions, to force others to obey to one’s idea of what ought to be.

The wielding of force is monopolistic by its very nature: it is the subjugation of one side’s will to that of the other. Force does not permit dissenters to go their own way. By its nature, force is the imposition of value-judgments—the coercer’s ideas about how those subject to his power ought to behave. The monopolistic imposition of the coercer’s moral ideas is not affected by whether the force-wielder is called “the government” or “Joe’s Defense Agency.”

If one must avoid imposing moral ideas by force, then one must renounce force altogether—i.e., practice pacifism. Like all arguments against the monopolization of force, “the argument from moral freedom,” reduces to an advocacy of pacifism. Pacifism is the most nearly consistent form of anarchism. Few anarchists, however realize this. They implicitly assume that there is such a thing as physical force that lets dissenters go their own way.

Let me concretize this. If someone shoots at me and I shoot back, I am using force to impose my morality—my right to my own life—on the gunman shooting at me. To avoid imposing my morality by force, I could only try to persuade him not to kill me. I could not use defensive force against him.

The non-initiation of force principle is itself a moral principle. Individual rights are moral principles. Is it wrong to use retaliatory force to “impose” freedom and to protect rights?

This points to the equivocation in the term “imposing morality.”

It is indeed wrong for the government to “impose morality” in the sense of trying to force men to be virtuous. But that is not what a proper, limited government does: its coercive “imposition” of morality is retaliatory force used to protect freedom. It is indeed in the name of morality that the government “imposes” freedom: freedom is what makes virtuous action possible. But only the free choice of the individual can make virtue actual. Virtue cannot be coerced.

For example, it is wrong for the government to make men go to church or to stop them from going to church; it is right for the government to wield retaliatory force to secure their freedom to make this choice for themselves. Force used to maintain freedom is force used to “impose morality” to that extent. This is true whether the force is wielded by the government, a private group, or an individual. Again, the only alternative is not merely the absence of government but the absence of retaliatory force—i.e., pacifism.

The failure of “anarcho-capitalists” to see this brings me to a second point:

Anarchism is a product of and expression of collectivism.

“Anarcho-capitalists” fail to see the pacifist implications of their position because they think in terms of groups instead of individuals. They think in terms of “defense agencies,” and picture many “competing” (i.e., conflicting) agencies. These anarchists could not avoid the pacifist implications of their positions if they realized that both a government and a “defense agency” is just a group of individuals. When reduced to the level of individual-to-individual interactions, it becomes clear that “not imposing morality by force” means no individual can use force to defend himself— e.g., cannot shoot back at someone who starts shooting at him.

What if an anarchist holds that an individual is morally justified in using retaliatory force? Then so is any other individual, and so is that organization of individuals we call “the government.” The individual vigilante is acting just as monopolistically as the government. Both the retaliating individual and the government seek to stop someone else’s action. If it is morally proper for an individual to defend himself by force, it is morally proper for him to band together with others to do so—i.e., to form a government.

The same facts that make individual self-defense moral—i.e., the right to self-defense—makes governmental force moral if it is used in defense of the rights of individuals.

Government is not a collective super-organism. Government is the agent of individuals—the individuals who established and support it, by delegating their right of self-defense to it. If those individuals have the right to defend themselves, then the government, as their agent, has the right to do so on their behalf. Only a collectivized mentality can hold that the police, acting on my behalf, cannot forcibly exclude “competitors” but a “defense agency” can.

Put it this way: a proper government is a defense agency, and to carry out its mission it can’t let “competitors” (other gangs) use unsupervised force.

The telling difference between a proper government and a private defense agency is this: a proper government is placed under objective control. Thus non-pacifist anarchists object not to retaliatory force but to placing retaliatory force under objective control. Their objection is to objectivity.

The second argument of “anarcho-capitalists” is “the argument from history”: governments have always grown beyond their proper limits, so we must assume they inevitably do so.

This argument ignores why government has grown. The cause is: bad philosophic ideas—especially altruism. The history of the United States shows exactly this. Our government has grown beyond its proper limits because Americans have rejected the earlier idea of what those proper limits are. The pursuit of happiness is now regarded as ignoble; the moral ideal has become Mother Teresa, because she ignored her own happiness, despised material wealth, and devoted her life to serving the needs of the neediest. In today’s America, the ruling creed is not “Mind your own business” (Benjamin Franklin) but “compassion for the most vulnerable among us” (any politician).

It is men’s ideas that rule their actions and their politics. It is not the power-lust of politicians but the philosophical ideas of the citizenry that have caused the expansion of state power since the founding of this country. The power-lust of politicians would be impotent in a society whose citizenry—and intellectuals—held the Objectivist philosophy of reason and individualism.

Note that if one holds that the majority of men are too irrational to ever see that their own self-interest requires a free society, then one must simply give up and retreat to a deserted island. One cannot consistently advocate any ideas—including anarchism—if the vast majority will not listen to reason. If “the masses” were too irrational to keep government within its proper bounds, they would be too irrational to keep “defense agencies” to the task of actual defense.

One final wrinkle. “Anarcho-capitalists” claim that “the market” would keep defense agencies in check. (This idea represents a collectivist view of the market.) But remember: what is up for grabs here is whether or not there will be a market. When the society is turned over to warring gangs, the race goes to the bloodiest, not to the best producers.

Here again, the “anarcho-capitalists” accept the statist approach of equating the dollar and the gun, production and force. The Left claims that “concentrations of wealth” on the market are coercive. The “anarcho-capitalists” claim that coercion is just another service on the market. But both are wrong: voluntary exchange has nothing in common with coercive interactions.

Production must be kept strictly separate from destruction. A business deals in the creation of goods and services to offer on a free market; a coercer deals in destruction. The proper use of destruction is to combat destruction—to wield retaliatory force against the initiatiors of force. But retaliatory force is still destruction, not production. There is no such thing as “the market for force-wielding.” For there to be a market in the first place, those who would simply seize goods must be met with force. The benefits of a free market presuppose that freedom has been established. Market mechanisms can’t establish or protect the preconditions of there being a market.

“Anarcho-capitalism” is a contradiction in terms. Capitalism can exist only where rights are protected, including property rights. To protect rights, criminals who initiate force must be met with retaliatory force. But the wielding of retaliatory force itself must be placed under objective control, by a constitutionally limited government with objective law. Otherwise, what results is not “competing defense agencies” but civil war. That war will be won by the gang with the most ruthless and most powerful army. Under anarchy, might, not right, determines what the “laws” will be.

In terms of current events, anarchism means Lebanon or Somalia. To link such horrors with the benevolence and prosperity of capitalism is obscene.