In the wake of September 11, 2001 and continuing through the lead-up to the Iraq War and into 2003, I was involved in an intense debate on several political Usenet groups (my involvement in political Usenet, actually, goes back to the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal of 1997-1998), in which there was a clique of rabidly right wing libertarians holding forth on what they called “anarcho-capitalism.” Many believe that the only logical conclusion to right libertarianism (and to history, actually) is capitalism completely unfettered by government. In a sense, they’re right (except for the history part): If you think government is bad for business and you think business is the best way to distribute resources, then the best government is no government at all. Of course a lot of Libertarians believe government is necessary to provide for the defense of business interests, but the anarchos would argue that if businesses need to be defended, they should do it themselves. Abolish government, they say, abolish borders, open all the world to capitalism. Let the market determine the value of everything.
I first came to know these guys during the Clinton years. They were ferocious in their hatred of Bill and Hillary and Janet “Shake and Bake” Reno (they called her, for her Parkinson’s palsy and for her part in the outcome of the Waco standoff with the Branch Davidians). In addition to being self-described anarchists, they were gun nuts of the first order, totally paranoid about Reno’s supposed aim to disarm the populace. Their views partly overlapped, then, with those of plain old right-wing Republicans who hated Clinton mainly for being a supposedly liberal Democrat. But the anarcho-capitalists, while willingly joining the Republicans in argument and research contra Clinton-Reno (as well many other areas like taxation and welfare), firmly denied sympathy for the GOP or conservatives—indeed, even denied they were part of a political spectrum running from left to right.
I went to these groups in 2001-2002–as John Ashcroft’s DOJ was bearing down on anyone suspected of being against “us” in the war on terrorism and civil liberties, and constitutionally endowed rights were being shredded before our very eyes–to ask what these guys thought of the Bush regime. I wasn’t surprised to learn that they found Ashcroft slightly (they claimed) more tolerable than Reno. At least he wasn’t going after their guns!
This led me to accuse the “anarchos” of being glorified Republicans—and that dragged them out of the woodwork.
What especially got under their skin was my accusation that you can’t be an anarchist and a capitalist at the same time. They’re mutually exclusive ideas. Capitalism fundamentally requires private property, and private property is not possible without a controlling legal authority to legitimize it. This notion is absolutely beyond the comprehension of the “anarcho”-capitalists, because once you concede that your most sacred “right” is impossible without a legal authority of some kind, you obviously have to concede your right to call yourself anti-state in any meaningful way. Even more disheartening to these so-called libertarians is that their utopia demands strict authority or it devolves into the worst kind of anarchy, utter chaos.
You can be a capitalist, or you can be an anarchist. You cannot be an “anarcho”-capitalist.
This may seem like an arcane area of discussion, but the debt-ceiling debate between Republicans and Democrats–indeed, more and more any debate between the two parties– is fundamentally, albeit cryptically, over the the very issues the “anarchos” and I debated nearly a decade ago. I think these fundamental issues ought to be debated in public, out loud, so Americans can get a firmer idea of what it is really that we’re talking about when we talk about cutting or raising taxes, or even what it means to share a society.
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Interesting thoughts, but I think your idea of rights is a bit confused. Do you have a right to your life or does a legal authority give you that right? I would argue that one has a right to life and a right to justly acquired private property…and that right comes before, separate from, and regardless of any legal authority.
You may say that you need government to help protect your rights, but it is false and backwards to say “private property is not possible without a controlling legal authority to legitimize it”. It may be that Anarcho-capitalism has problems, but its problems would not be for the reasons you outlined in this article.
In the words of Frederic Bastiat: “Life, liberty, and property do not exist because men have made laws. On the contrary, it was the fact that life, liberty, and property existed beforehand that caused men to make laws in the first place.”
It’s a pretty giant leap between anyone’s right to their own life and their right to “justly acquired” property. You are born with your life (which, by the way, can be snuffed fairly easily by one’s parents, as a recent justice story in the news shows, so good luck, infants, asserting that right!). A whole lot has to happen (for most of us) before we ever acquire property, justly or otherwise. It seems pretty clear to me that we don’t have anything–at all, including life–that can legitimately be called a right until there’s a government or power of some kind to recognize it.
What is “justly acquired” property without a controlling legal authority to recognize and set the conditions for what is just?
Bastiat seems to forget that the first men who made laws were absolute dictators. How does he deal with that?
Thanks for your challenging comment. I appreciate it!
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