Anarchism: Liberal Threat or Liberal Critique?

Anarchism: Liberal Threat or Liberal Critique?

Anarchism is surely underrated in the popular mindset, unjustly besmirched as it is by thesauruses juxtaposing anarchy with chaos and disorder, even nihilism. Anarchism has a place in the public discourse as a critical lens through which to analyze the state. But however unfairly anarchism is treated, as a substantive political theory it is deeply mistaken and even dangerous if taken beyond its analytical role. I address this essay to market anarchists, especially those of a left libertarian variety because these are the anarchists with whom and the arguments with which I’m most familiar. When I refer simply to “anarchism” this is the philosophy I have in mind.

Liberal democracies are at present ascendant in the world. Roughly speaking these comprise North America, Western Europe, and a smattering of other countries. A glance at any multivariate well-being index (e.g., the United Nations’ Human Development Index, or newer efforts like the Social Progress Index and the Legatum Prosperity Index) reveals liberal democracies clustering at the top of the league tables. They change order based on differing methodologies, but remain firmly rooted at the top regardless. These societies are also at the forefront of science and technology.

Anarchy, depending on the anarchist polled, is either untried or has existed in pockets here and there throughout history, mostly in clan-based societies. Data on well-being for these cases is hard to come by, but there’s little doubt that such anarchies as have existed are considerably poorer than modern liberal democracies. If you had to choose, would you choose for your child or close loved one to be born in a randomly allocated social position within a randomly chosen liberal democracy or a randomly chosen anarchy? Or consider a society in flux, perhaps after a massive natural disaster, a long and destructive civil war, or perhaps just a constitutional crisis driven by polarization and inequality.  The society is teetering on the edge of disorder and violence. If you were placed in a position of influence, would you encourage liberal democratic institutions, including a state, or would you choose anarchy, perhaps with private defense agencies?

These hypotheticals are underdetermined. I’m leaving important details out. That’s okay. Think about what details would make the thought experiment solvable and illuminating for you. I will maintain that under virtually any realistic circumstances, opting for anarchy would be foolish.

The monism of coercion

Anarchism is built atop a kind of monism. Violent coercion is seen as the singular ‘bad’ that must be resisted. All ethical considerations must begin with identifying the presence of coercive violence; other considerations are strictly secondary. Violent coercion that is socially accepted as legitimate is this singular evil amplified, codified, even deified. Most anarchists don’t literally take violent coercion to be the only social ill. Anarchists come from all philosophical origins and many have rich theories on how best to live. Yet insisting at the outset that the state is morally impermissible suggests the prohibition on coercive violence dominates all other values. If you would favor sending your child to a liberal democracy over an anarchy, then something about that statist society — perhaps the wealth, life expectancy, or liberal values — is prevailing over concerns about legitimized coercion.

An awkward truth for the anarchist’s emphasis on coercion is that coercion cannot be eliminated from society. If coercion means the imposition of one’s will on another individual, then, for example, it plays a central role in any conceivable method of child-rearing. Babies and small children cannot make day-to-day decisions for themselves let alone long-term plans. Even if children do not qualify as full individuals because of their undeveloped rationality, their lives are controlled by adult custodians, and their options and possible life plans are heavily constrained by those custodians, above and beyond the mere economic constraints of living in a world of scarcity.

Anarchists insist (rightly) that anarchy doesn’t mean absence of rules. But rules must be enforced somehow, leading necessarily to some kind of coercion. This might not take the form of physical threats and violence, but depending on the closeness of the community, social ostracism and shaming can be just as damaging as violence, and often more so, as when economic embargo on an exile leaves that person without the means of survival. More pointedly, ostracism and exile directly impact some of the most important sources of meaning in an individual’s life: their relationships with friends and family and their participation in social, religious, and economic activities. This can be more devastating to an individual’s well-being than violent penalty that is limited in duration and severity.

Strictly non-violent forms of harassment, intimidation, and domination can directly impact victims’ mental health and induce various physical maladies via stress. Victims can experience long term psychological trauma, paranoia, and self-destructive behavior including suicide. Such situations can affect bystanders as well, as in the case of children of victimized parents. That such deep and pervasive harm can come from non-violence causes should give libertarian anarchists motivated by the “non-aggression principle” pause. Concrete examples include the stalking ex-husband, the sexual harasser boss, the vengeful ex who publishes or threatens to publish compromising material, or the anonymous hordes who dox and harass victims (often with rape and death threats). That such harms are intentionally inflicted, and that they can plausibly be mitigated by direct, coercive intervention — in the forms, say, of restraining orders or the prohibition of “revenge porn” — should give libertarians further doubts. There is no shortage of cases where the intuitive value of non-coercion fails to trump other considerations.

Private property is rightly cherished by libertarian anarchists because it allows the individual to peacefully and productively interact with the world and with other persons. Yet private property fundamentally hinges on violent coercion. As the philosopher Elizabeth Anderson explains in Private Government (emphases hers),

Every establishment of a private property right entails a correlative duty, coercively enforceable by individuals or the state, that others refrain from meddling with another’s property without the owner’s permission. Private property rights thus entail massive net losses in negative liberty, relative to the state of maximum negative liberty. If Lalitha has private property in a parcel of land, her liberty over that parcel is secured by an exclusive right at the cost of the identical negative liberty of seven billion others over that parcel. [p.47]

It should be noted that property claims are an initiation of violent threat, and so the anarchist cannot fall back on a non-aggression or self-defense principle. This is to the good for a variety of reasons and from a number of different philosophical perspectives. But acknowledging this deprives the anarchist of a straightforward intuitive opposition to coercion. To be clear, there’s very good reason for the forceful imposition of a regime of stable property rights. Such rights afford individuals a capability to act within the material and social worlds productively, and they form one component of the liberal engine of progress, well-being, and individual empowerment. Coercion is not only ineliminable from society, but some coercion is essential even to the ideally just society that the anarchist envisages. Other values aside from opposition to initiatory coercion must be at play in our theorizing, values that can evidently trump the freedom from coercion, at least sometimes. What are these values, and how can the anarchist justify a hardline stance against coercion when it comes to opposing a state but not when it comes to rearing children, enforcing anarchic law, or defending property rights? And if our fundamental motivation for property rights is due to a commitment to institutions that empower individuals to lead lives of their own authentic choosing, then shouldn’t this motivating vision suffice to defeat, at least sometimes, those same property rights when they impede the development and sustenance of individual capabilities to flourish?

The chimera of legitimacy

I mentioned above the special disdain anarchists have for legitimized coercion. It could be that coercive enforcement of anarchic law is acceptable to the anarchist because the enforcement is distributed among social actors and not localized in a monopoly — the state. Coercion may always be with us, but we must not give it our seal of approval and empower some entity with special privileges to coerce.

At best, the state should have no more privileged powers to coerce than anyone else. The philosopher Michael Huemer acknowledges in The Problem of Political Authority that coercion sometimes is justified. Consider a group of people on a life raft who need to work together to get to safety but can’t agree on which way to row. Someone who happens to have a gun could, in this case, compel obedience by threat of violence — otherwise all might die. In circumstances like this, the state is just as justified in compelling obedience as any other similarly situated entity. The core intuition here is that government actors should be treated no differently than other persons. Actions that would be immoral for your neighbor must also be immoral for government actors.

This is an admirably nuanced position, yet it still denies the possibility of having a legitimate entity whose purpose and specialization is to coerce for the sake of ongoing public goods provision (which in some cases are similar in principle to the lifeboat coordination example — consider getting everyone to agree on how to mitigate global warming) and to be prepared for the sudden onset of new coordination problems. The anarchist can of course fairly respond that no government actually remains within such bounds and the inequality of power and moral latitude resulting from empowering the government represents an arbitrary hierarchy that cannot be justified.

But anarchy contains its own problems of arbitrary inequalities and hierarchies. Let’s assume, as do many anarchist theorists, that anarchy would take the form of private defense agencies that compete with one another to defend individual rights. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that Robert Nozick’s contention in Anarchy, State, and Utopia that such defense agencies would naturally evolve into territorial monopolies doesn’t hold. Nevertheless it seems reasonable to believe that such territorial monopolies would hold in at least some regions, perhaps sparsely populated areas, for the same reasons that utility provision follows the same pattern: there is little market demand. This would create pockets of state-like authority.

A related worry for such relatively isolated regions is that they likely contain dominant religious and cultural traditions, and the tendency would be to slide into understanding thick religious/cultural commitments as basic justice and failing to defend dissenting minorities. One could argue that freedom of movement would allow exit to more competitive areas, but this would be a painful hurdle for many people — to leave the family farm, ailing parents, etc — and just as unfair as those who say “like it or leave it” to critics of governments now. And this leaves aside the possibility that anarcho-capitalist economist Hans-Hermann Hoppe advances in Democracy: The God that Failed: private landowners would restrict the movement of undesirable individuals into their lands, effectively restricting freedom of movement and confining the oppressed to their lot.

It’s also worth asking how anarchy might cement current socioeconomic hierarchies into place. Let’s assume anarchy takes the form of a regime of Nozickian just transfers, where property rights among individuals are absolute, and justly acquired property can be freely transferred assuming no attendant rights violations. As Nozick himself acknowledged, the justice of such a regime would depend on the justice of the starting arrangement of property titles. Unless racial, gender, class, and other forms of injustice inherited from the past are dismantled at the same time, moving from statism to anarchy risks effectively legitimizing such social hierarchies. The rhetorical promise of anarchy would be equal freedom for all, and no future forced interactions or state-backed oppression would be permitted. Any inequalities that persisted in anarchy could easily grow in time to be seen as just the natural outcome of the market. Defense agencies, being private entities — perhaps explicitly chartered to maximize shareholder value — might feel justified in offering tiered levels of service according to actuarial data on the need for their services. Marginalized communities that are disproportionately impacted by crime and poverty might thus suffer further economic consequences for the very fact of their marginalization.

Of course, the concept of “shareholders” might not be relevant, depending on exactly how anarchy actualizes. There’s a risk too to purely privately owned defense agencies, perhaps closely held by families and inherited. Apart from the obvious similarity to the mafia, this structure poses the risk of inherited title to power. Even if such family-run protection rackets developed organically via just transfers, an individual picked at random, perhaps a member of a marginalized community, would be right to wonder if the inherited wealth and shareholder privilege they see around them is really more legitimate than the outcomes of quaint liberal democracies impugned in their history books.

I want to be careful not to overstate my case here. I’m engaging in a bit of speculative insinuation. Anarchists can fairly point out that the state engages in its share of pile-on oppression. It’s also possible that a society that was ready to move to anarchy may already be overturning other forms of oppression. But it’s hard to foretell exactly what might happen (more on this below). But some states have proven better at supporting some marginalized people than others, and some have demonstrated a willingness to counteract local oppression. In terms of our thought experiments, we have reason to prefer the known imperfections of liberal democracy over the many potentialities of perverse anarchies.

Varieties of legitimacy

I have assumed above, as many anarchists do, that state legitimacy is a yes/no question. But it doesn’t have to be so. Even radical libertarians can appreciate the obvious fact that some states are much better than others, along virtually any dimension. Loren Lomasky and Fernando Téson in their book on global justice, Justice at a Distance, acknowledge the logical validity of Huemer-style arguments against the legitimacy of political authority. They accept that no government is 100% legitimate, but they insist that we can still appreciate differences. A state is more legitimate to the extent that it avails individuals access to institutions that further their capability to pursue their own projects.

[T]he main difficulty with the normative account of legitimacy is that no actual state is really legitimate, for no state really exercises delegated power. Rather, the justice or injustice of governance is measured via a continuum. Persons have moral rights that they need to pursue their personal projects. Good institutions enable persons to pursue their projects; bad institutions interfere with those projects. The institutions of government and the actions by officials and others often violate the moral rights of citizens to different degrees. They unjustly intrude with liberty or property. Virtually all governments do this. The United States allows great freedom of speech but permits the incarceration of many morally innocent persons. Singapore restricts political freedom but enables citizens to trade and produce. Argentina does not persecute dissenters but steals from its people. For this reason, we reject the sharp distinction between liberal and illiberal states that dominates the literature. A state will be better or worse depending on its degree of respect for the moral rights of its subjects. Now, of course, some states protect freedom better than others. On their balance sheet, they can show a significant surplus in the freedom column. We can call these states, for convenience only, liberal states. They are the ones that possess relatively unobtrusive institutions not only in the formal sense but also in the way that they are applied by public officials. These institutions deserve respect, and it is highly desirable that more actual states become liberal in this sense of acquiring good institutions. But bad institutions and practices, even in these relatively benign states, do not deserve respect and are vulnerable to criticism and acts of diplomacy calculated to counter them. In other words, a state is not shielded by its good institutions from (otherwise permissible) actions aimed at undermining its bad institutions. China’s improved record on economic freedom does not shield its government from international criticism of its political censorship. Greece’s relatively good record on civil liberties does not excuse its predatory economic behavior. [p. 179]

Emphasis mine. One doesn’t have to take Lomasky and Téson as the final word. Anarchists can think in terms of the effectiveness of negative rights protections or any of a variety of human development indices. Anarchists risk their relevance by ignoring questions of relative legitimacy and of what it takes to improve the lives of people living within states in favor of all-or-nothing legitimacy questions. To be fair, many anarchists, especially “gradualists” who favor a slow transition to anarchy, do focus more on direct action and developing new ways to marginally obviate the state. But even among these, the certainty with which they hold to the anarchist creed — the clarity of their vision of at least the statelessness of their ideal society — suggests that they pay outsized attention to the asymptotic realm of perfect legitimacy.

Epistemic closure

The all-or-nothing view creates a tension with liberalism. For anarchists of a certain type, anarchism offers a comprehensive conception of justice, a singular interpretive framework within which to evaluate all social institutions and interactions. Thus the state is not an institution adapted to facilitate coordination on social rules and provide public goods and security against violence, emerged independently (though with great variation) repeatedly in various historical settings out of the cauldron of warring clans and parties. No, the state is purely a stationary bandit. Taxation cannot be understood as a socially acceptable cost of living in society under a government that provides public goods. No, taxation is theft, no different from a burglar. The various understandings of the majority of citizens to the contrary is evidence of just how deep statist brainwashing goes. To this anarchist, most social evils are at their roots caused by the state. Even those social evils that appear to be consequences of markets or other institutions are ultimately caused by state aggression warping otherwise peaceful behavior. This logic — a manifestation of the monism I discussed above — is epistemically closed. Like the religious fundamentalist, the libertarian anarchist is immune to inconvenient facts and resists alternative interpretations.

Jason Lee Byas, in a well-regarded essay at the Center for a Stateless Society, exemplifies this epistemic closure (“Radical liberalism” is his term for libertarian anarchism. Hyperlinks removed.):

[W]e are not only being robbed by taxation but by the forces taxation puts in place. As radical liberal economist Frederic Bastiat observed, there are always seen and unseen effects from state action. Seen are the streets, schools, and security from invading armies. Unseen are the heightened risks of blowback, more ennobling forms of education artificially made unfeasible, and the singularity of innovation being held back.


“While the radical liberal sees no classes in nature, they do see society fractured into them by aggression. There are those who seek to live by voluntary cooperation and those who seek to live by systemic predation. Individualist anarchists, the most radical of radical liberals, take that analysis further, showing how the state further cuts up society into classes by enabling its similarly-structured cousins.

Large centralizations of wealth, structural poverty, and the rigid authoritarianism of our workplaces are not the natural product of market society. They are the result of endless interventions so normalized that they do not look like interventions.

White supremacy, patriarchy, and transphobia are not biologically encoded into us and exacerbated by free exchange. They are the culmination of slavery, conquest, racialized zoning, immigration restrictions, marriage laws that enshrined subjection and tolerated rape, gendered property laws, webs of gendered administrative law, and countless other aggressions so regular that they do not look like aggression.

More than anyone else, we love peace and safeguard cooperation. Yet we cannot ignore the war around us. There is little adrenaline behind the legislator’s vote, the bureaucrat’s checklist, or the policeman’s casual stroll, but they are acts of war all the same. Throughout that monotonous charge, the unknowing infantry’s supreme objective is always the protection of political authority.

Bastiat’s warning about the risks of unintended consequences is twisted here to suggest that we cannot even know the depths of the damage caused by the state by foreclosing on other possibilities. This provides the anarchist with a security blanket of unfalsifiability. Because anarchy is (always) untested, the anarchist can rest secure in the faith that even where the state provides some good, anarchy could always have provided a better solution. All the woes commonly attributed to laissez-faire markets are laid at the feet of the state’s interference instead. I’m not arguing that the state is blameless or even that markets are not unfairly accused. But the slave trade was a market. And it strains credulity to believe absent government involvement, we would never have been inflicted by white and male supremacy and that markets would not have done their part in transmitting and sometimes amplifying those evils. Segregation, on Thomas Schelling’s famous model, is an emergent phenomenon.

The recasting of quotidian government as acts of war by unknowing stooges (the non-anarchists among us) goes beyond mere hyperbole and enters the realm of dangerous utopian delusion. This view renders one’s fellow citizens not as good people who can reasonably disagree, but as the blind multitudes who don’t know what’s good for them. As unwitting agents of evil engaged in acts of violence (however peaceful they may appear), it’s a short mental jog from principled non-violent anarchism to the literal bomb-throwing kind. This kind of extremism is abetted by arguments that belief in the state must be a kind of Stockholm Syndrome, as Michael Huemer has suggested. [Political Authority p.121]

This epistemic closure is accentuated by an illiberal urge to evade dealing with the brute political fact of irreconcilable disagreement among rational persons arguing in good faith. This desire to impose a comprehensive ideology is evidenced by the popularity of movements like Seasteading — where entirely new lands are to be created for the purpose of escaping disagreement —  and the nonchalance with which many anarchists and their fellow travelers favor restricting popular suffrage, usually appealing to the “epistocratic” arguments of anarchist economist Bryan Caplan and the (nonanarchist) political philosopher Jason Brennan. This enforcement of doctrine resembles that of communist and theocratic states.

A fog-of-war episteme

I have made several assumptions in the above discussion about what features might obtain under anarchy. Some may have seemed more charitable than others. This gets to a critical element of discussing anarchy and trying to compare it to alternative arrangements like liberal democracy. Anarchism is an ideal theory and, like all ideal theories, it involves significant alterations not only to institutions as they are described, but also to the contextual features of the world in which these institutions appear. We can’t simply think about what would happen if a benevolent monopolistic defense agency director snapped their fingers and implemented anarchy. We necessarily have to make some assumptions about the world in which anarchy might obtain before we can make any predictions about what that world might be like. There is nothing wrong with making such assumptions and predictions, but we risk just uncritically projecting our priors onto our models of the unknown.

The political philosopher Gerald Gaus has argued in The Tyranny of the Ideal that special care must be taken when thinking about worlds very different from our own. After all, prediction is hazardous even for policies that don’t fundamentally alter basic institutions. Just ask the Congressional Budget Office or any government body in charge of implementing new policy. For that matter, ask any CEO about how their predictions fare for introducing new products onto the market (there’s nothing specific to government about the uncertainty of models and the risks of prediction). Our lives are mediated and given flesh by various institutions, from the structure and norms of the family; to norms about work, gender, leisure, civic and private responsibility, and property; to the structure and function of entities such as government (and all its sub-entities like courts, the military, the welfare state, states and municipalities, etc), churches and temples, universities, journalistic outlets, corporations, unions, non-profit organizations, professional and leisure clubs, and so on. Not all of these may be relevant for advancing justice, of course. Gaus calls the relevant institutions and facts about the world justice-salient “social world features.” He argues that any model of an ideal theory will have to contend with all these degrees of freedom and their interactions with one another. He introduces a “Neighborhood Constraint” to describe how errors in our predictions about new modes of living will compound as we move further and further away from our social world features, so that we can say very little with any confidence about ideal worlds very different from our own.

Anarchism (of any form) is just the sort of ideal theory Gaus is talking about, and under any conception its world features must be radically different from our own. Most obviously, the vast majority of people believe in the basic purposes of government. Eradicating this belief would presumably involve significant changes to other aspects of popular worldviews. What would have to happen to bring this about? An entire civic religion would need to have undergone a reformation. Part of this religion for large swathes of the country has been respect for the military as a way of life and a means of social mobility and purpose. Would the venerated soldier prepared to die for their nation have been extinguished as an ideal or repurposed to private defense agencies or local militias? What might have been the cultural path dependencies of this movement? Or would this kind of person simply be no more?

The various social safety nets, the expectations of their presence, and the ways these expectations inform life plans, would obviously change. Absent government, private and religiously motivated charities are supposed to step into the breach. But with a collapse in one kind of public faith, what would have happened to churches, mosques, etc? If they fill in for the state’s charitable role, would they have stepped in to support other roles like violent norm enforcement as well? Would there even be religious communities, or would a dramatic shift to the sort of monistic rationalism associated with anarchism have spelled doom for religious belief and its attendant institutions as well?

The role of the state in dealing with the outer world is an especially murky area. What would have happened to long-standing treaties, now presumably obsolete? The state has always mediated international trade, so what of international corporations and their role in wealth creation? Would an anarchy be seen as a place to do business or would uncertainty chase away investment? What geopolitical changes abroad would have accompanied such a massive change in a large country? Would there even be a sense of cohesion in what was once the nation-state, or would there be a large set of tiny fiefdoms in its place?

The point is not that any of these differences in institutions or justice-salient social world features would cause some insoluble problem. It’s just that the world would be incomprehensibly different from what we know. When anarchists describe in meticulous detail their visions of anarchy, they use models calibrated to our present social world. Of course, these models are imperfect even for this world. But for a social world as alien as anarchy, where virtually every human institution must have been upheaved, these models and the intuitions they transmit simply cannot be trusted. Gaus describes the problem well (emphases his):

I realize that some deny this: there is a persistent strain in political philosophy that the ideal world would be organized along straightforward and simple lines. In his utopian novel Looking Backward Edward Bellamy described “a social order at once so simple and logical that it seems but the triumph of common sense.” Or, as [GA] Cohen seems to suggest, the motivational structure underlying a socialist economy in an advanced technological society can be crystallized in the ethos of a friendly camping trip. The supposition that the social institutions of the ideal will be simple and predictable is by no means restricted to socialist utopias — anarcho-capitalists seem to truly believe that actual societies will function as predicted by relatively straightforward microeconomics and the theory of the firm. We must not confuse simple models of the ideal (they are extraordinarily easy to create) with plausible predictions of the social realizations of a set of institutions for large-scale societies. Those confident that they know the “simple and logical” workings of ideal mass societies should, perhaps, reflect on the surprising intractability of social norms in small-scale societies in the face of concerted, well thought out, and well-funded interventions by the United Nations and other agencies. While there have been some notable and important successes in altering specific norms such as female genital cutting in some locations, in other places these interventions have not met with success, and sometimes initial success has faded as targeted norms were readopted. And this concerns a few specific norms in villages whose population is measured in the thousands. … When we realize new social worlds we are always struck by features we did not quite anticipate; important causal relations emerge that even our best models did not include. This is not to dismiss the pursuit of ideals; it is, however, to dismiss the claim that we can be confident about a social realization of a far-off ideal because it will be such a simple and predictable world. And even if we granted this outlandish claim, it surely could not be said that all the worlds on the way to the ideal are likewise simple and knowable (unlike the world we actually live in, which is far less knowable because we have so much more information about it?). [Gaus 77]

It’s important to emphasize that more reform-minded approaches do not have this problem. We know much about liberal democracy because we live it. For all its faults we know that liberal democracy is relatively stable and that social justice reforms are possible (witness the advances of women and racial and religious minorities in liberal democracies). We know that people of various divergent beliefs can live together in relative peace. And we know that liberal democracy is consistent with steady economic growth. Indeed, the advent of liberal democracy accompanied the greatest expansion of wealth and human capabilities the world has ever seen, as well as world-historical declines in violence documented by Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature.

Clarifying radicalism

I am sometimes challenged by anarchists about my opposition to radicalism. The abolition of slavery, after all, was quite radical. And I support open borders, usually dubbed a radical proposal. “Radical” may simply mean “extreme” in a colloquial sense, but I prefer to think of radicalism to mean a belief that the root of some problem is found and radical solution to mean addressing that root, often involving uprooting some system. In this sense, neither open borders nor slavery abolition are as radical as they are made out to be.

Though the effects of open borders on institutions is a common and valid concern, the open borders position itself implies no direct institutional change. We already have large amounts of immigration, and open borders has existed in the past. Some small government agencies might shutter their doors (like Immigration and Customs Enforcement), but no core government bodies would need to change. No new modes of living would be required. Market exchange would be unaltered. No grand theory of justice would need to achieve near unanimous adherence. Indeed, a majority of people in the US favor more open immigration. A world (or just America) with open borders is a world very close to our own in world feature space.

Slavery abolition is admittedly a little more radical. An entire industry was supported by slavery and much of the economy of the American South. Nevertheless, the North was already rid of slavery, and civilizations of varying degrees of achievement throughout history made do without slavery. And of course there were free Africans living and working in the North and elsewhere. Abolition of slavery was a big change, but not a radical change.

Consider by contrast two changes that would be radical: the abolition of gender and that of religious faith. Gender permeates our lives, structuring our interactions with and interpretations of others from early childhood onward. It provides (or imposes) models of living, with many life plans and roles having an explicitly gendered valence (e.g., being a mother or brother). The normative force of masculinity and femininity involve deep injustices. The liberal feminist believes these injustices can be mitigated by reforming our understandings of gender, but not abolishing it. The radical feminist, true to the word, believes the injustices of gender oppression cannot be resolved without full abolition, including a massive change in the self-understandings of nearly every individual. Using Gaus’s terminology once more, the world in which gender is abolished is very different from our own.

The New Atheist seeks the full abolition of an interpretive framework that provides meaning to billions of individuals, sustains major institutions, and gives narrative flesh and blood to what might otherwise be cold, rational moral calculus. Religion may misfire, and its various empirical claims may even be false, but the abolition of religious faith would be radical in a way that the abolition of slavery was not. The world without the religious impulse would look very different from our own.

It would be a fool’s errand to try to predict what worlds without gender, without religious faith, and without the state, would look like, how they would function. Radical change means radical ignorance.

These examples are edifying in another sense as well. Both gender and religion have been reformed countless times in liberal, humanistic directions. Women in liberal democracies are freer — can choose their own lives with greater agency and more substantial means — than ever before. All major religions have splintered into sects, some of which affirm liberal values of individualism, tolerance, and cosmopolitanism. The successes of liberal feminism and liberal religion are incomplete, but the progress is undeniable. The state in its liberal democratic form has likewise achieved incomplete but undeniable progress in liberal humanist terms. The radical, out of a thirst for the perfection of the unknown, would uproot — and risk — everything.

Historical analogs

The libertarian anarchist would like to keep the liberalism of liberal democracy but ditch the government. I’ve suggested above that it’s impossible to know if this is possible, simply because it’s impossible to know what modern anarchy would look like at all. But we do have at least three situations that resemble some kind of anarchy in that there is no legitimized monopoly on violent coercion in some given territory. These are civil war-torn regions, tribal societies, and the global order itself. Each of these examples should be discomfiting to the anarchist who hopes liberalism will prevail under anarchy.

Civil war means there has been some breakdown of the peace imposed by the leviathan state. Instead, multiple parties with partial and contested legitimacy violently vie for more complete legitimacy, as well as other valuables like natural resources. The humanitarian qualities of such a situation are obviously disastrous. It is characterized by high levels of violence including sexual violence, uncertainty in day-to-day living let alone long term planning, depletion of resources, and forced migration. The situation is also unstable, with civil wars rarely lasting much more than a decade and some peace under political authority prevailing in the end.

This is an imperfect analogy for anarchy because there is no general support for anarchic institutions. But it’s relevant to anarchists because anarchist theory depends on some mechanisms among the heavily armed parties (be they competing private defense agencies or whatever), often involving collusion among these parties to keep peace out of self-interest. If these mechanisms break down, then the result would seem to look like civil war.

Many tribal societies have no central authority. Instead, disputes are resolved by respected figures in the community. Judgments are enforced by social pressure, shame, and the threat of ostracism. Such ostracism is a serious fate in small, close-knit communities. Mark Weiner — who discusses several such societies in The Rule of the Clan — has argued that while these tribal societies are close to anarchic, they are far from liberal. Individuals are not seen primarily as individual persons with their own agendas, but as members of a clan. The rights and interests of the individual are subordinated to those of the clan. Property is not an individual right, but something owned by a lineage. Women of course are not seen as full individuals but as vectors for the continuance of the lineage. Finally, such clan-based societies are far more violent than not only modern liberal democracies, but also non-liberal states. Tenuous peace between clans is frequently broken by spasms of violent feuds.

Tribal society is exceptionally stable, existing indefinitely, largely because humans are evolutionarily adapted for living in small groups similar to clans. Because human nature hasn’t changed on the genetic level since this was the dominant mode of human sociality, liberal — and merely political — order is forever liable to the pull of clan life. We see this in the myriad ways tribalism rears its ugly head in everything from politics to sports. And we see it in the constant threat of corruption and nepotism in business and government. Or as Francis Fukuyama argues in the Origins of Political Order (emphases his):

Natural human sociability is built around two principles, kin selection and reciprocal altruism. The principle of kin selection or inclusive fitness states that human beings will act altruistically toward genetic relatives (or individuals believed to be genetic relatives) in rough proportion to their shared genes. The principle of reciprocal altruism says that human beings will tend to develop relationships of mutual benefit or mutual harm as they interact with other individuals over time. Reciprocal altruism, unlike kin selection, does not depend on genetic relatedness; it does, however, depend on repeated, direct personal interaction and the trust relationships generated out of such interactions. These forms of social cooperation are the default ways human beings interact in the absence of incentives to adhere to other, more impersonal institutions. When impersonal institutions decay, these are the forms of cooperation that always reemerge because they are natural to human beings. What I have labeled patrimonialism is political recruitment based on either of these two principles. Thus, when bureaucratic offices were filled with the kinsmen of rulers at the end of the Han Dynasty in China, when the Janissaries wanted their sons to enter the corps, or when offices were sold as heritable property in ancien régime France, a natural patrimonial principle was simply reasserting itself. [p.439]

Anarchists might wish to take heart in the stability of this form of anarchy. It is the most realistic bet for anarchy, but they will likely lose liberalism, individualism, and their consequent cornucopia of human capabilities in the bargain. There is no changing human nature on the timescales of our interest, so any attempt to maintain liberalism within anarchy will face the same challenges from the clan that political orders face, and they may be less equipped to deal with such forces.

Consider again the working picture of competing rights protection agencies. In a free market, such agencies will leverage any advantage they can, and this includes appealing to tribal impulses. I’ve already mentioned the possibility of such agencies entrenching inequalities of power by becoming family-owned and inherited businesses. The call of the clan gives us more reason to think this is exactly what would probably occur, as defense executives succumb to nepotistic temptation. The dismissive characterization of private defense agencies as mere mafias rings true. The analogy with clan life also suggests that such freedom as might exist in this anarchy could be limited by the private defense agency’s desire to preemptively limit risky behavior that might lead to feud or loss of face for the controlling family.

Recall the society in flux I mentioned near the beginning of this essay. Whatever the volatile situation under consideration, there will certainly be powerful families represented, ready to leverage their cohesive organization to seize power. Perhaps this is not all bad. Taking advantage of the existence of powerful families could mean a quicker and surer way to social order and peace than taking a longshot on constitutional democracy. Glancing at the Americans’ attempts to build democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq testify to this reality. Indeed the anarchist scholar Peter Leeson has presented evidence [pdf] that the more anarchic, clan-controlled Somalia outperforms pre-civil war statist Somalia on various metrics. This is worth considering, but it must also be admitted that settling for such statelessness means living with the illiberal rule of the clan and suppression of the individual.

Finally and briefly, one mustn’t dismiss the seemingly trivial point that the world itself constitutes an anarchic order. The world itself is just one example, but with a sparsity of relevant data, we take what we can get. In this case a diverse population spread over a large geographic territory spontaneously organizes into pockets of states and tribal societies, with the states tending to dominate and subsume indigenous tribes. This is at least weak evidence that any other large, diverse population (like that of the United States or Europe), risks self-organizing into states out of anarchy. We might dismantle liberal democracy just for (presumably illiberal) states to emerge once again.

Intentional political decay

This brings me to how political authority — and ultimately liberal institutions — arose in actual history. In the Origins of Political Order Francis Fukuyama uses examples from China, India, early Muslim civilizations, and various European polities to draw out the general mechanisms for achieving political order, which he defines as a strong, centralized, impersonal (or bureaucratic) state. By strong Fukuyama means not necessarily tyrannical, but capable of defending itself from internal and external threats. Liberal order is a special case of this, and involves not only a strong and impersonal state, but one accompanied by the rule of law — where even political authorities feel compelled to follow independent legal principles — and political accountability — as from democratic electorates or some kind of representative bodies.

Political order emerges out of tribal order, and Fukuyama emphasizes that it forever remains under constant threat of succumbing again to tribalism. The state fends off these forces by erecting institutions to tame loyalty to the family. The Egyptian Mamluks, for example, used military slavery, abducting young Christians from far-off lands and enculturating them into Islam under the tutelage of eunuchs, themselves cut off, as it were, from concerns of advancing any lineage. The Catholic Church, which attained state-like organization and political power, accomplished something similar with the innovation of priestly celibacy. Prior to this, bishoprics were inherited.

Liberal order has only ever arisen out of political order, and it’s never been straightforward, always having depended on a serendipitous balance of power between different social groups, usually between a monarch (nevertheless commanding a strong state), a hereditary and landed aristocracy, workers, and a nascent bourgeoisie. This balance of powers must be accompanied by favorable economic and geopolitical conditions. England managed this confluence of events over several centuries, beginning with the Magna Carta (signed at an opportunistic time of kingly weakness) and the slow development of the Common Law-based rule of law, which in Fukuyama’s telling had depended on the happenstance of the development of an independent source of legal authority in the Catholic Church.

England got lucky. Fukuyama also recounts the impressive institutional achievements of medieval Hungary, which came close to being the birthplace of the world’s first liberal order. The Golden Bull of 1222 imposed constitutional limits on the Hungarian king, who was forced to sign it by empowered nobles. This might have been the basis for early liberalization and political accountability, but the central state proved too weak, both against the nobility — Fukuyama suggests the English parliament featured a comparatively broader base in the form of minor gentry — and against external threats from the east. Close, but no stable liberal order.

One doesn’t need to accept Fukuyama’s telling in every detail to accept the general point. The development of “inclusive institutions” out of the baseline of “extractive institutions” discussed by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson in Why Nations Fail differs in details, but the pivotal roles played by balance of powers and historical contingency — which is to say luck — are the same, whether these blessed balances materialize as bubonic plague-induced greater economic power of serfs or the sparse population of North American colonists in the absence of easily enslaved natives.

The luck involved in achieving liberal institutions and their inherent fragility in the headwinds of human nature are not sufficiently appreciated by anarchists. Ideas are important, but the ideas and ideals of the Enlightenment could only take root in auspicious social, political, and economic circumstances. This matters because anarchists, in their radical holistic assaults on the institutions of “the system,” directly etch away the very institutions that facilitate liberal freedom. When we “burn the system to the ground” many things might rise from the ashes, but few of them are congenial to liberal practices.

Anarchism is the advocacy of political decay. When anarchists condemn democracy as statist and voting as violent, they corrode the democratic norms that help to restrain, imperfectly, the politically powerful from treating the machinery of government as their own personal engines of wealth and power. When the political order is “demystified” by anarchists as nothing beyond the systematized violence and domination of the stationary bandit, anarchists risk losing perspective, even according to their own lights. When ballots are just bullets by other means, then demagogues cannot be distinguished from the status quo of democracy.

The election of Donald Trump illustrates this. Few if any market anarchists liked Donald Trump, and yet Hillary Clinton was “the system” in human form. She was complicit in virtually all the worst excesses of the modern state: military hawkishness and imperialism, racist mass incarceration, and political insiderism, to name a few. But she could also be trusted to maintain the dignity of the office, abide by democratic norms, make unsurprising appointments, do nothing to offend friends and allies, and remain well within the confines of mainstream political doctrine. She would nurture, rather than disdain, institutions, including those of checks and balances. But anarchists could see little normative difference between a candidate bent on chaos and self-aggrandizement and a “normal” candidate that represented what to them is an oppressive system worse than chaos. Anarchists thus had few rhetorical or theoretical resources for opposing the most authoritarian presidential candidate since Franklin Roosevelt. Anarchists failed to discern extraordinary authoritarianism from the banal authority of political order, and so they failed spectacularly to be of any use in politically resisting Trump.

To function, democracy needs buy-in. People need to believe that justice and reform are possible by democratic means. They need to believe that electoral outcomes are legitimate and that the peaceful transition of power is an absolute and precious necessity. They need to believe that continued dialogue is better than disengagement or violence. They need to believe that the right to vote is a meaningful token of peace and voice. In intentionally corroding the institutions of democracy, anarchists are perhaps unintentionally conducting an accelerationist strategy, the strategy of speeding along the collapse of the system (so that something purer can be built in its stead, so the theory goes).This is true even for anarchist gradualists. Undermining democracy and democratic norms smoothes the path not to peaceful anarchy, but to demagoguery and despotism.

Toward a critical anarchism

Anarchists advance a simplistic, reductionistic political worldview that bulldozes nuance and fine distinctions. They obsess over a chimerical problem of consent and legitimacy at the expense of a more direct but less sanctimonious concern for the capabilities of individuals to lead prosperous and meaningful lives. The radicalism of the anarchist denies the possibility of interpretive dissidence in favor of a one-size-fits-all triumphant theory of justice, an attitude exemplified by the take-my-ball-and-go-home, anti-democratic illiberalism of the Seasteader.  The utopian vision of anarchy is worse than merely unfeasible. It is so far removed from our world as to be little more than the earnest imaginings of the science fiction enthusiast. To the extent we can analogize anarchy to anything historical, we can expect it to be hostile to the very modern liberal freedom and individualism that anarchists believe they have distilled. In their accidental accelerationism, anarchists play right into the hands of demagogues and despots by corroding democratic norms and institutions.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Anarchists have something important to offer with their unique perspective. It’s helpful for someone to remind the rest of us that men with guns will eventually materialize if you don’t pay your taxes. Someone should remind us that when we ban something, it is the full force of the state we’re authorizing to deploy against violators. War can be the health of the state. Democracy is flawed and there is an element of coercion involved in voting. The state is not the source of all oppression but it often abets and amplifies oppressive relationships.

We can think of anarchism as existing in three modes: philosophical, methodological, and political. The philosophical anarchist problematizes political authority, believing it is at best a useful fiction. The methodological anarchist broadens the scope of available activism beyond those legally allowed by governments to include direct action, civil disobedience, disruptive innovation, and any other kind of morally justified rule flouting. It is a basic tenet of the logic of perspectival diversity that methodological anarchists, with their unique way of perceiving problems, might develop novel solutions to social problems. The political anarchist specifically works toward the abolition of the state. While certain of my arguments apply to philosophical and methodological anarchists, it is primarily the political anarchist that I oppose.

A critical anarchism embraces philosophical and methodological anarchism, but with ironic detachment. They advance their ideas and engage their activism and social tinkering to counter and reform the evils of the state, but without willing its outright abolition. The critical anarchist may advocate for subversive technologies and alternative institutions that may obviate elements of the state, but they do so not primarily because they will injure the state and immanentize Anarchotopia, but because they will directly improve the lot of humankind. The critical anarchist acknowledges the prosperity enabled by the state in its liberal democratic form, and they exercise extreme care to avoid sabotaging those core institutions. And when grave threats to liberal civilization arise, the critical anarchist allies with the state and its advocates to oppose these graver threats to freedom.

Featured image is “The Haymarket Riot“, seen in Harper’s Weekly, 1886.