Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Anarchy without Fear

“Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.” - William Butler Yeates

The Memory Hole

October 17, 2002


These, you might say, are bleak days for libertarians, except that libertarians never have a nice day. Experience keeps proving them right, but still, after the “Reagan Revolution” and the final flop of the Socialist Motherland, alias the Soviet Union, they can’t make a dent in the political duopoly dedicated — right here in America! — to saving the welfare state.

All one can say is that libertarians’ days used to be even bleaker; a lot bleaker. They can remember when socialism, and the Soviet Union, used to look like the “wave of the future,” and opposing the trend was known as “trying to turn back the clock.”

Actually, libertarians’ ideas have had an influence their political weakness doesn’t reflect. Many conservative Republicans would vote for the Libertarian Party if they thought it had any chance of winning, rather than helping the Democrats win.

Libertarians are divided between conservatives and anarchists. The former think there must be some minimal state, or “limited government.” The anarchists think the state is evil in principle and must be totally eliminated. A radical position, to be sure, but an interesting one.

The first great American anarchist was Lysander Spooner, who died more than a century ago. His argument was simple. There is a natural and unchangeable moral law, which forbids slavery. No man has the right to force others to do his will. The state not only claims such a right, but claims a monopoly of force — the right to force its subjects to accept its laws as morally binding, no matter how arbitrary and unjust those laws may be.

That is, the state claims that its commands supersede the moral law. It claims it can add to, and subtract from, the eternal law of God. It never actually says this, but the claim is implicit in its supposed authority. If it has a legitimate, limitless monopoly of force, we all have a limitless duty to obey it. And this, Spooner says, is absurd. It amounts to saying that the state has the right to violate all our rights. Once we grant the principle, we are already slaves of the state.

Conservatives have tried to rein in the state with constitutions confining it to a few specific powers, but these constitutions have never worked for very long. The reason is simple. The state itself “interprets” the constitution in such a way as to broaden its own powers constantly — or it simply disregards the constitution as soon as it’s powerful enough to get away with it.

There is no getting away from it: at bottom, the state is nothing but organized force. Its only abiding rule is this: “Obey, or we will hurt you.”

What is force? Simone Weil defined force as that which turns a person into a thing — a corpse or a slave — with no will of its own. Of course even a slave exercises his own will to some degree, but only by sufferance of his master. The state itself has to allow its slaves some latitude, but its permissions aren’t genuine rights. Even the Soviet rulers had to permit some degree of the economic freedom it had abolished in principle; otherwise the socialist state would indeed have “withered away” — through famine. If the slaves don’t eat, the master starves too.

Most men today can hardly imagine living without the parasitic force-systems we call states. However bad the state may be, they assume that anarchy would be somehow even worse, even after a century of world war, mass murder, and general waste and destruction claiming hundreds of millions of lives and creating poverty where there might have been plenty.

By now, if men learned from experience, they would talk about the state in the same tones in which Jews talk about Nazis. Instead, they continue to imagine the state as their savior and protector, and as the natural solution to all their problems. Yet it’s self-evident that the bigger the state, the larger the ratio of force in human life, and the smaller the scope of free action.

The measure of the state’s success is that the word “anarchy” frightens people, while the word “state” does not. We are like those African slaves who believe that their master is their benefactor, or those Russians who still believe that Stalin was their guardian.