Posts tagged Lysander Spooner

Dr. Anarchy Answers Your Rhetorical Questions

Today’s question comes from The Agitator (2011-01-20), about a recent police raid on a medical marijuana dispensary in the suburbs of Metro Detroit:

Dear Dr. Anarchy:

Earlier this month, police in Oakland County, Michigan raided a medical marijuana dispensary in the town of Oak Park. The deputies came in with guns drawn and bulletproof vests, with at least one wearing a mask.

They made no arrests, but they did clean the place out. The confiscated all of the dispensary’s cash on hand and—in a particularly thuggish touch—also took all of the cash from the wallets and purses of employees and patients.

… Under Michigan’s asset forfeiture law, 80 percent of the cash the deputies seized will go directly to the Oakland County Sheriff’s Department. The other 20 percent goes to the local prosecutor. Medical marijuana is legal under Michigan law but is of course still illegal under federal law. And apparently there’s some debate about the legality of dispensaries. All of which means this particular dispensary will have a hard time proving it earned the seized cash legitimately. I doubt the patients and employees will get their cash back, either. The cost of challenging the seizure is likely several times more than the amount of money most people carry on their person.

In light of all this, Balko asks, So how is this different from armed robbery?

The short answer to the rhetorical question is that it isn’t. The longer answer is that, aside from the gang colors, there are two differences between an official armed robbery like this one, and the stereotypical armed robbery carried out by freelancers.[1] The first difference is that when gangsters without badges rob you, you could in principle go to the police about it and try to get the robbers arrested. But when the gangsters who robbed you are the police, and are happy to arrest you if you complain about the robbery, then who do you go to?

The second difference is that after gangsters without badges rob you, at least they usually let you go on your way; they spend the money on private indulgences, and leave you alone. But when gangsters with badges rob you, they take the money and use it to finance the more raids, more arrests, more brutality, and more efforts to control the behavior of people like you and force you to submit to their insane and arbitrary laws. As Spooner writes in No Treason 6.3.5:

The highwayman takes solely upon himself the responsibility, danger, and crime of his own act. He does not pretend that he has any rightful claim to your money, or that he intends to use it for your own benefit. He does not pretend to be anything but a robber. He has not acquired impudence enough to profess to be merely a “protector,” and that he takes men’s money against their will, merely to enable him to “protect” those infatuated travellers, who feel perfectly able to protect themselves, or do not appreciate his peculiar system of protection. He is too sensible a man to make such professions as these. Furthermore, having taken your money, he leaves you, as you wish him to do. He does not persist in following you on the road, against your will; assuming to be your rightful “sovereign,” on account of the “protection” he affords you. He does not keep “protecting” you, by commanding you to bow down and serve him; by requiring you to do this, and forbidding you to do that; by robbing you of more money as often as he finds it for his interest or pleasure to do so; and by branding you as a rebel, a traitor, and an enemy to your country, and shooting you down without mercy, if you dispute his authority, or resist his demands. He is too much of a gentleman to be guilty of such impostures, and insults, and villainies as these. In short, he does not, in addition to robbing you, attempt to make you either his dupe or his slave.

So, the only difference between police forfeiture raids and the more stereotypical forms of armed robbery is that police forfeiture raids are worse.

  1. [1] Stereotypical, not typical. Armed robbery by government officials is just as typical as armed robbery carried out by freelancers. It’s just not discussed to the same extent.

Liberty, Equality, Solidarity: Toward a Dialectical Anarchism

It’s March 2010. It has now been two years since my essay Liberty, Equality, Solidarity appeared in Roderick and Tibor’s Anarchism/Minarchism anthology. Which means that those of you who recently ordered now have a shipment in the mail, which should arrive within the next few days. And it also means I can now do this. Enjoy!

Liberty, Equality, Solidarity: Toward a Dialectical Anarchism

Charles Johnson (2006/2008)

Reprinted with permission of the Publishers from Liberty, Equality, Solidarity: Toward a Dialectical Anarchism in Anarchism/Minarchism, ed. Roderick T. Long and Tibor R. Machan (Ashgate, 2008). pp. 155-188. If you reprint this article, please retain this attribution.

The purpose of this essay is political revolution. And I don’t mean a “revolution” in libertarian political theory, or a revolutionary new political strategy, or the kind of “revolution” that consists in electing a cadre of new and better politicians to the existing seats of power. When I say a “revolution,” I mean the real thing: I hope that this essay will contribute to the overthrow of the United States government, and indeed all governments everywhere in the world. You might think that the argument of an academic essay is a pretty slender reed to lean on; but then, every revolution has to start somewhere, and in any case what I have in mind may be somewhat different from what you imagine. For now, it will be enough to say that I intend to give you some reasons to become an individualist anarchist,[1] and undermine some of the arguments for preferring minimalist government to anarchy. In the process, I will argue that the form of anarchism I defend is best understood from what Chris Sciabarra has described as a dialectical orientation in social theory,[2] as part of a larger effort to understand and to challenge interlocking, mutually reinforcing systems of oppression, of which statism is an integral part—but only one part among others. Not only is libertarianism part of a radical politics of human liberation, it is in fact the natural companion of revolutionary Leftism and radical feminism.

My argument will take a whole theory of justice—libertarian rights theory[3]—more or less for granted: that is, some version of the “non-aggression principle” and the conception of “negative” rights that it entails. Also that a particular method for moral inquiry—ethical individualism—is the correct method, and that common claims of collective obligations or collective entitlements are therefore unfounded. Although I will discuss some of the intuitive grounds for these views, I don’t intend to give a comprehensive justification for them, and those who object to the views may just as easily object to the grounds I offer for them. If you have a fundamentally different conception of rights, or of ethical relations, this essay will probably not convince you to become an anarchist. On the other hand, it may help explain how principled commitment to a libertarian theory of rights—including a robust defense of private property rights—is compatible with struggles for equality, mutual aid, and social justice. It may also help show that libertarian individualism does not depend on an atomized picture of human social life, does not require indifference to oppression or exploitation other than government coercion, and invites neither nostalgia for big business nor conservatism towards social change. Thus, while my argument may not directly convince those who are not already libertarians of some sort, it may help to remove some of the obstacles that stop well-meaning Leftists from accepting libertarian principles. In any case, it should show non-libertarians that they need another line of argument: libertarianism has no necessary connection with the “vulgar political economy” or “bourgeois liberalism” that their criticism targets.

The threefold structure of my argument draws from the three demands made by the original revolutionary Left in France: Liberty, Equality, and Solidarity.[4] I will argue that, rightly understood, these demands are more intertwined than many contemporary libertarians realize: each contributes an essential element to a radical challenge to any form of coercive authority. Taken together, they undermine the legitimacy of any form of government authority, including the “limited government” imagined by minarchists. Minarchism eventually requires abandoning your commitment to liberty; but the dilemma is obscured when minarchists fracture the revolutionary triad, and seek “liberty” abstracted from equality and solidarity, the intertwined values that give the demand for freedom its life, its meaning, and its radicalism. Liberty, understood in light of equality and solidarity, is a revolutionary doctrine demanding anarchy, with no room for authoritarian mysticism and no excuse for arbitrary dominion, no matter how “limited” or benign.

Liberty

Individual liberty is essential to political justice for both minarchist and anarchist libertarians. Both understand political liberty as freedom from organized coercion: force, under libertarian theory, can only be legitimate in defense of an individual person’s liberty, never when initiated against those who have not trespassed against any identifiable victim. Libertarians often draw boundaries between liberty and invasion through the principle of self-ownership: you are rightly your own master, and nobody else, individually or collectively, is entitled to claim you as their property.[5] That includes governments: self-ownership is held to be unconditional and “prepolitical,” in that it does not depend on the guarantees of political constitutions or legislation, but rather logically precedes them and constrains the constitutions and legislation that can legitimately be established. Thus anarchists and minarchists agree that political power should be subordinated to the principle of self-ownership, and everyone left alone to do as she pleases with her own person and property provided she respects the same freedom for others. But they disagree over what these principles entail. Minarchists argue that the rights of liberty and self-defense, delegated and institutionalized, establish the legitimacy of a “night-watchman” State,[6] limited by a written constitution and devoted to the rule of law. For anarchists, the rights of liberty and self-defense expose even the “night-watchman” State as professionalized usurpation, and reveal all government laws and written constitutions as mere paper without authority. Such a conflict demands explanation, and clarification of the terms of the dispute.

I won’t hazard a definition of either “government” or “state” here, but some essential features can be described. States have governments, and governments, as such, claim authority over a defined range of territory and citizens. Governments claim the right to issue legitimate orders to anyone subject to them, and to use force to compel obedience.[7] But governments claim more than that: after all, I have the right to order you out of my house, and to shove you out if you won’t go quietly. Governments claim supreme authority over legally enforceable claims within their territory; while I have a right to order you off my property, a government claims the right to make and enforce decisive, final, and exclusive orders on questions of legal right[8]—for example, whether it is my property, if there is a dispute, or whether you have a right to stay there. That means the right to review, and possibly to overturn or punish, my demands on you—to decisively settle the dispute, to enforce the settlement over anyone’s objections, and deny to anyone outside the government the right to supersede their final say on it. Some governments—the totalitarian ones—assert supreme authority over every aspect of life within their borders; but a “limited government” asserts authority only over a defined range of issues, often enumerated in a written constitution. Minarchists argue not only that governments should be limited in their authority, but specifically that the supreme authority of governments should be limited to the adjudication of disputes over individual rights, and the organized enforcement of those rights. But even the most minimal minarchy, at some point, must claim its citizens’ exclusive allegiance—they must love, honor and obey, forsaking all others, or else they deny the government the prerogative of sovereignty. And a “government” without sovereign legal authority is no government at all.

Authority, in the political sense, is correlative with deference. Insofar as Twain is subject to Norton’s authority, Twain is obliged to defer to Norton’s decisions, and Norton can compel him to obey. But the sort of deference must be carefully distinguished. Robert Paul Wolff notes that

An authoritative command must … be distinguished from a persuasive argument. When I am commanded to do something, I may choose to comply even though I am not being threatened, because I am brought to believe that it is something which I ought to do. If that is the case, then I am not, strictly speaking, obeying a command, but rather acknowledging the force or rightness of a prescription. … But the person himself [sic] has no authority—or, to be more precise, my complying with his command does not constitute an acknowledgment on my part of any such authority. (1970, 6)

Reason is no respecter of persons, but authority is personal: if Norton has legitimate authority over Twain, then Twain’s obligation to defer doesn’t come from the nature of what Norton decided, but from the fact that Norton decided it.[9] Wolff’s point could be sharpened by further distinguishing epistemic authority from imperative authority. There are cases where you should defer to an authority because she possesses some special expertise on the issue at hand.[10] But this is more scientific authority than political authority, and not really what Wolff seems to have in mind. The reason that lawyers bring their cases before the Supreme Court is not just that the Nine have some special expertise on the requirements of the law. Maybe they do, but the reason that others are supposed to defer to their judgment has to do with the offices they personally hold; their status is constitutive of the binding force of the judgment. However expert a mere lawyer may be, her opinion still amounts only to a brief, not a ruling, unless and until the judge personally authorizes it. It’s not that the issue lies within the court’s expertise, but that it (supposedly) lies within their prerogative.

It is not enough, then, for a minarchist just to postulate an ideal government that makes some rulings worth enforcing on their own merits. If a judgment is worth enforcing on its own merits, then it surely is perfectly legitimate to enforce it, but then the legitimacy comes from the content of the judgment, not from its source.[11] That justifies enforcing the judge’s ruling, but it does not establish that the judge’s authorization confers any special legitimacy on the enforcement, above or beyond what private citizens could confer, either individually or cooperatively in private “defense associations,” given enough wisdom, study, and application. Minarchists need a theory that legitimates exclusive government authority through the special positions that government agents occupy, and the sovereign status of the government they represent. Without one, they have no justification for the special prerogatives claimed by even the most scrupulously limited of governments.

I claim that minarchists cannot consistently offer the kind of theory that they need to offer, because no possible theory can connect sovereign authority to legitimacy, without breaking the connection between legal right and individual liberty. My case for this claim consists of three challenges, each developed in the anarchist literature, which demonstrate a conflict between individual liberty and one of the forms of special authority that minarchists have traditionally wanted governments to exercise.[12] Since the clearest expression of the first, and most basic, challenge is in Roy Childs’s “Open Letter to Ayn Rand,” we might call it the Childs challenge. Rand argues that a government must be strictly limited to the defensive use of force in order to be morally distinguishable from a robber gang.[13] She holds that even the legitimate functions of a properly limited government must be funded voluntarily by the governed, condemning taxation in any form.[14] However, she insists on the legitimacy of sovereignty and explicitly rejects individualist anarchism.[15] Childs, accepting Rand’s description of a government as “an institution that holds the exclusive power to enforce certain rules of social conduct in a given geographical area,”[16] argues that no institution can claim that authority and remain limited to the defensive use of force at the same time:

Suppose that I were distraught with the service of a government in an Objectivist society. Suppose that I judged, being as rational as I possibly could, that I could secure the protection of my contracts and the retrieval of stolen goods at a cheaper price and with more efficiency. Suppose I either decide to set up an institution to attain these ends, or patronize one which a friend or a business colleague has established. Now, if he [sic] succeeds in setting up the agency, which provides all the services of the Objectivist government, and restricts his more efficient activities to the use of retaliation against aggressors, there are only two alternatives as far as the “government” is concerned: (a) It can use force or the threat of it against the new institution, in order to keep its monopoly status in the given territory, thus initiating the use or threat of physical force against one who has not himself initiated force. Obviously, then, if it should choose this alternative, it would have initiated force. Q.E.D. Or: (b) It can refrain from initiating force, and allow the new institution to carry on its activities without interference. If it did this, then the Objectivist “government” would become a truly marketplace institution, and not a “government” at all. There would be competing agencies of protection, defense and retaliation—in short, free market anarchism. (Childs 1969, ¶ 8)

Rand’s theory of limited government posits an institution with sovereign authority over the use of force, but her theory of individual rights only allows for the use of force in defense against invasions of rights. As long as private defense agencies limit themselves to the defense of their clients’ rights, Rand cannot justify using force to suppress them. But if citizens are free to cut their ties to the “government” and turn to private agencies for the protection of their rights, then the so-called “government” no longer holds sovereign authority to enforce its citizens’ rights; it becomes only one defense agency among many.[17] Childs formulated his argument as an internal critique of Ayn Rand’s political theory, but his dilemma challenges any theory combining libertarian rights with government sovereignty. Any “limited government” must either be ready to forcibly suppress private defense agencies—in which case it ceases to be limited, by initiating violence against peaceful people—or else it must be ready to coexist with them—abdicating its claim to sovereignty and ceasing to be a government. Since maintaining sovereignty requires an act of aggression, any government, in order to remain a government, must be ready to trample the liberty of its citizens, in order to establish and enforce a coercive monopoly over the protection of rights.[18]

At this point, some minarchists—most famously Robert Nozickaccept that a properly limited government cannot simply suppress competition from rights-respecting defense agencies (without ceasing to be properly limited), but reply that it can rightfully constrain competing defense agencies to obey certain norms, and in particular to respect certain procedural immunities for the accused. A lynch mob has no right to demand that they be allowed to “compete” with courts; a properly limited government has the right to prohibit procedures that impose unacceptable risks of punishment on the innocent.[19] If it can prohibit unreliable procedures, then it can force defense associations either to adopt permitted procedures or disband. But then government sovereignty reasserts itself, as the government becomes “the only generally effective enforcer of a prohibition on others’ using unreliable enforcement procedures … and … oversees these procedures” (Nozick 1974, 113–114). If a properly limited government reserves the right to authorize enforcement by approved defense agencies, and prohibit enforcement by rogue defense agencies, then it remains the sovereign authorizer of enforcement, even if it becomes one of many direct providers.

Governments probably are entitled to forbid enforcement procedures that violate the procedural immunities due to the accused. But unless the minarchist introduces some further reason to reserve this prerogative for the government, the Childs challenge applies as much to the protection of procedural immunities as to the ordinary protection of rights. If the government has a right to suppress rogue agencies, then so does anyone, as a matter of individual self-defense.[20] The universality of the right draws out a second point. Nozick makes the transition from dominant protective agency to minimal State by using language that suggests deputizing private citizens: the government makes a list of who can be trusted to enforce the law, and if you’re not on the list, then the government will stop you from taking the law into your own hands. What matters is whether or not the government has given you permission to act as a law-enforcer. The picture depends on a blurring of the distinction amongst argument, authoritative testimony, and prerogative. Defense associations may have the right to stop other enforcers from using unreliable procedures, but whether a procedure is unacceptably risky or not is a matter of fact, which can be characterized and discovered independently of the say-so of the government. The government’s seal of approval plays no constitutive role in the right of an agency to use procedures that are demonstrably legitimate, and the government’s own procedures must be subject to objective criticism as much as any private enforcer’s. A right to suppress unacceptably risky efforts at enforcement establishes no right to demand direct oversight of agencies’ procedures,[21] or to suppress “unauthorized” enforcers simply for not having the official approval of the government.

The language of “permission,” “prohibition,” and “oversight” obscures the distinction; but in fact the protection of procedural immunities is not properly understood in terms of giving permission at all, but rather respecting a general right.[22] The more generally and impersonally a defense agency specifies its procedural protections, the less they will resemble anything that could intelligibly be described as “oversight,” “giving permission,” or , broadly, the exercise of political authority. The more they resemble interventionist “oversight,” “giving permission,” or political authority, the more they will tread on the freedom of innocent people to enforce their own rights using reliable but unofficial procedures. The government in Nozick’s “minimal State” must either adopt general policies allowing for free competition without requiring grants of official permission—and once again ceases to exercise sovereignty—or else it must enforce its demands of oversight and official approval, even on agencies that are following reliable procedures—and once again ceases to be limited to defensive uses of force.

There is another possible reply I find more promising—indeed, convincing. Strictly speaking, Childs’s dilemma applies to only one branch of the government: he demonstrates that governments cannot claim a monopoly on enforcing the rights of citizens, i.e., on the executive functions of government. It establishes that anyone, not just the government and its official deputies, can enforce citizens’ rightful claims to person and property. But how is it determined which claims are rightful, and which claims are baseless? Robert Bidinotto has objected that anarchism demands not only “’competition’ in the protection of rights,” but also “’competition’ in defining what ‘rights’ are” (1994, ¶ 20); without a government established as the “final arbiter on the use of force in society” (1994, ¶ 25), there is no way to fix objective rules for the assertion of rights, and no possibility of meaningful settlement of disputes over rights-claims. So even if a minimal government cannot claim a monopoly on the executive functions, perhaps a “microscopic” government could claim a monopoly on legislation.[23]

Provided that the government legislature and government courts do not try to interfere with protection of rights by private citizens or defense associations, I cannot see how the Childs challenge could undermine sovereignty over legislation. But a second challenge, vigorously expressed in the later works of Lysander Spooner, can. In the “Letter to Grover Cleveland,” Spooner argues that all legislation is either criminal, tyrannical, or idle:[24]

Let me then remind you that justice is an immutable, natural principle; and not anything that can be made, unmade, or altered by any human power. … Lawmakers, as they call themselves, can add nothing to it, nor take anything from it. Therefore all their laws, as they call them, – that is, all the laws of their own making, – have no color of authority or obligation. It is a falsehood to call them laws; for there is nothing in them that either creates men’s [sic] duties or rights, or enlightens them as to their duties or rights. … If they command men to do justice, they add nothing to men’s obligation to do it, or to any man’s right to enforce it. They are therefore mere idle wind, such as would be commands to consider the day as day, and the night as night. If they command or license any man to do injustice, they are criminal on their face. If they command any man to do anything which justice does not require him to do, they are simple, naked usurpations and tyrannies. If they forbid any man to do anything, which justice could permit him to do, they are criminal invasions of his natural and rightful liberty. In whatever light, therefore, they are viewed, they are utterly destitute of everything like authority or obligation. (1886, ¶¶ 4–7)

Minarchists usually agree that governments have no legitimate authority to command violations of individual rights, or to forbid acts permitted by individual liberty—the motive for limiting government was the idea that legitimate political authority only exists within the boundaries drawn by individual rights. But Spooner’s point about laws that command justice or forbid injustice—prohibiting murder, theft, rape, etc.—may be harder to grasp. It is, after all, true that governments and defense associations are perfectly justified in enforcing those laws. But what must be appreciated here is that the obligation to follow those laws, and the right to enforce them, derives entirely from the content of the laws and not their source. The government is justified in enforcing those laws only because anybody would be justified in enforcing justice, whether or not self-styled legislators have signed off on a document stating “Murder is a crime most foul.” The document itself is idle; it neither obliges nor authorizes anyone to do anything they were not already obliged or free to do. The government is not so much making new laws that impose obligations, but (at best!) making declarations that recognize preexisting obligations—which could be objectively specified by anyone, with or without official approval from anyone.[25] Any right to override another’s assessment would derive from objective and impersonal considerations of justice, demonstrated through argument or attested on the basis of expertise,[26] not from political prerogatives invested in the so-called legislature. Anyone, regardless of status, has the right to make correct declarations about justice, and override or ignore incorrect declarations. With no special prerogative to establish rights, and no special prerogative to enforce them (as per the Childs challenge), the claim of “sovereignty” for a “properly limited government” must involve either usurpation or idle pretense.

That said, I do think that there is one final straw for the minarchist to grasp, even after the Childs challenge and the Spooner challenge have been taken into account, relating to a lacuna in Spooner’s account of the possible relationship between a piece of legislation and the background principles of justice. Spooner discussed three possible cases: (1) the legislation may demand something that contradicts what individual rights require—making it criminal; (2) it may demand something that exceeds what individual rights require—making it tyrannical; (3) it may demand something identical to what individual rights require—making it nugatory. Spooner’s argument presumes that the “prepolitical” framework of individual rights determines every question of enforceable obligations, leaving no room for legislators to exercise legitimate prerogative. But while these options cover the bulk of both the criminal and the civil law, Spooner has overlooked one important possibility: there may be cases where the principle of self-ownership does not fully specify how to apply individual rights in the case at hand.

It may be that respect for individual rights requires that cars going opposite directions on a highway should drive on opposite sides—so that drivers will not needlessly endanger each other’s lives. But self-ownership alone surely has nothing to say about whether motorists should drive on the left or the right. It requires that some rule be adopted, and that once adopted, each motorist obey it. But which rule to adopt is a question that needs to be settled by considerations other than individual rights. Medieval legal writers described similar cases as reducing the natural law (in the sense of making it more specific); the idea is to spell out the details for cases where the principles of natural justice underdetermine the correct application of individual rights. It may seem, then, that this ekes out a place for positive law-making in spite of the Spooner challenge: since there has to be some specification of how to apply rights in these cases, but more than one specification is compatible with the requirements of individual rights, a minarchist might think that you need a government to take on the prerogative of specifying which one to adopt.[27]

If the Childs challenge undermined the executive authority of the government, and the Spooner challenge undermined its legislative authority, you might think of this move as preserving judicial authority for a sovereign government. Sovereignty here means the right to serve as the final authority on setting out auxiliary principles for applying individual rights to specific cases where the requirements of self-ownership are vague or contingent. To be sure, the limits put on the scope of its authority by the Childs challenge and the Spooner challenge would be severe. The government would have no executive and no general legislature; it would have no special privileges to enforce and the scope of its law-making would be limited to ironing out minor details within a system of obligations almost entirely predetermined by the non-aggression principle. It would be a sort of “ultramicroscopic government,” so small that its influence on the specification and protection of rights could barely be detected at all.

Although I think that the problem of reducing the natural law is one of the hardest problems for anarchist theory to resolve, I do not think that the minarchist is actually in a stronger position than the anarchist. The difficulty for the minarchist solution can be brought out with a final challenge, also from the works of Lysander Spooner. This second Spooner challenge is expressed most clearly in No Treason no. 1:

The question still remains, how comes such a thing as “a nation” to exist? How do millions of men [sic], scattered over an extensive territory – each gifted by nature with individual freedom; required by the law of nature to call no man, or body of men, his masters; authorized by that law to seek his own happiness in his own way, to do what he will with himself and his property, so long as he does not trespass upon the equal liberty of others; authorized also, by that law, to defend his own rights, and redress his own wrongs; and to go to the assistance and defence of any of his fellow men who may be suffering any kind of injustice – how do millions of such men come to be a nation, in the first place? How is it that each of them comes to be stripped of his natural, God-given rights, and to be incorporated, compressed, compacted, and consolidated into a mass with other men, whom he never saw; with whom he has no contract; and towards many of whom he has no sentiments but fear, hatred, or contempt? How does he become subjected to the control of men like himself, who, by nature, had no authority over him; but who command him to do this, and forbid him to do that, as if they were his sovereigns, and he their subject; and as if their wills and their interests were the only standards of his duties and his rights; and who compel him to submission under peril of confiscation, imprisonment, and death?

Clearly all this is the work of force, or fraud, or both.

…. We are, therefore, driven to the acknowledgment that nations and governments, if they can rightfully exist at all, can exist only by consent. (Section III, ¶¶ 1–6)

Spooner’s aim in No Treason is, famously, to demonstrate that citizens are only obliged to recognize the sovereign authority when, and only for as long as, they genuinely, individually consent to recognize its authority. What I want to draw attention to are the reasons that Spooner suggests for the requirement. Here, Spooner questions the notion of a political jurisdiction, asking what by what right some gang calling itself “the government,” however strictly limited, gains authority over otherwise unrelated people who never had anything to do with them? If there is some question of different ways in which rights could be applied, then what sort of process and what sorts of relationship justify the special claim that even an ultramicroscopic government would make to establish their judgment in preference to all the others?

Spooner suggests that genuine, individual consent can explain their authority over a jurisdiction. Suppose that Twain and Kearney have a dispute over how long land must be left unused before it can be reclaimed as abandoned property. If they both agree to turn the question over to Norton and defer to his judgment, then it’s clear how Norton got jurisdiction over the case: Twain and Kearney agreed to bind themselves to his judgment. But suppose that Twain and Kearney never agreed to turn the question over to Norton, perhaps never even had anything to do with Norton at all. If Norton should insist that they should still defer to his judgment, because he is the Emperor, then Norton has the burden of explaining what binds Twain and Kearney to him in such a way that his judgment is more authoritative than anybody’s arbitrary fiat. Even if the vague boundary between between Kearney’s and Twain’s claims needs to be made more precise, where does Norton, specifically, get the right to enforce his specification, except by consent of the disputing parties?

If consent is the standard, then the consent must be genuine. In particular, it must be possible to refuse consent, or to withdraw it later once given.[28] That means that consent cannot justify any government body claiming permanent and irrevocable sovereignty. If a court’s jurisdiction depends on the consent of those who have put themselves under it, then each of those people must be individually free to take herself out of the jurisdiction and create or align herself with another jurisdiction. But without consent, it’s hard to see what distinguishes the government’s assertion of special authority from arbitrary fiat. If a community has settled on the rule of one year rather than two for abandonment, the government has no authority to arbitrarily override the settled conventions. If folks are divided over the right rule to follow, but have agreed to submit the dispute to some third party whom they trust more than the government, the government has no authority to butt in to enforce its own decision over the agreed terms. If folks are divided over the right rule to follow, and have not made any steps toward resolving the dispute, then the government has no authority to arbitrarily force itself on them as the arbiter.[29]

Liberty cannot coexist with government sovereignty, however “limited.” The claim of sovereignty must be backed up by coercion at some point, given up or reduced to a vacuous arrangement of words, whether sovereignty is claimed over the enforcement of rights, the definition of rights, or the application of rights. Any way you slice it, government sovereignty means an invasion of individual freedom, and individual freedom means, ultimately, freedom from the State.

Equality

The standard against which I have been measuring minarchist governments in each of these three challenges is based on an intuitive notion of Liberty that I have taken more or less for granted. That might expose me to allegations that I’ve made my case by misapplying or inflating the concept of “liberty” beyond the conceptual or material context that gives it meaning. In my defense, I want to offer some remarks on the conceptual context within which I think the principles of self-ownership and individual liberty arise, and to consider two possible objections to the argument of the previous section. First, it might be held that I have demonstrated a genuine conflict between individual liberty and government authority, but that coercion is justified in the limited case of establishing government sovereignty, either because some other important value is at stake, or else because a little coercion is a necessary evil to avoid much greater or much worse coercion. Or, it might be held that I have only seemingly demonstrated a conflict between individual liberty and government authority by applying the concepts of liberty and coercion outside of the context within which they are meaningful: in this case, government authority could not be properly characterized as either “coercive” or “non-coercive,” perhaps because (for example) notions such as coercion and freedom are only meaningful within a system of rights, and a system of rights is only meaningful in the context of a functioning legal system. I think that either charge reflects a failure to appreciate the conceptual relationship between the revolutionary demands for Liberty and Equality.

Attaching my controversial understanding of liberty to the standard of equality might seem less than prudent, if my interlocutor is a minarchist libertarian. Modern libertarians make demands for individual liberty with passion and urgency; their reaction to demands for social equality is more often tepid if not openly hostile. Criticism of social inequality is much more likely to be heard from the mouths of unreconstructed statists, and “egalitarianism” is hardly a term of praise in most libertarian intellectual circles. But I shall argue that equality, rightly understood, is the best grounds for principled libertarianism. When the conception of individual liberty is uprooted from the demand for social equality, the radicalism of libertarianism withers; it also leaves the libertarian open to a family of conceptual confusions which prop up many of the common minarchist arguments against anarchism.

My task, then, is to explain what I mean by “equality, rightly understood.” I certainly do not intend to suggest that liberty is conceptually dependent on economic equality (of either opportunity or outcome), or on equality of socio-cultural status.[30] But the equality I have in mind is also much more substantive than the formal “equality before the law” or “equality of rights” suggested by some libertarians and classical liberals, and rightly criticized by Leftists as an awfully thin glove over a very heavy fist. Formal equality within a statist political system, pervaded with pillage and petty tyranny, is hardly worth fighting for; the point is to challenge the system, not to be equally shoved around by it. The conception of equality that I have in mind has a history on the Left older and no less revolutionary than the redistributionist conception of socioeconomic equality. It is the equality that the French revolutionaries had in mind when they demanded egalité, and which the American revolutionaries had in mind when they stated:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men [sic] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. (Jefferson 1776a ¶ 2)

Jefferson is making revolutionary use of concepts drawn from the English liberal tradition. Equality, for Jefferson, is the basis for independence, and the grounds from which individual rights derive.[31] Locke elucidates the concept when he characterizes a “state of Perfect freedom”—the state to which everyone is naturally entitled—as

A State also of Equality, wherein all the Power and Jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another: there being nothing more evident, than that Creatures of the same species and rank promiscuously born to all the same advantages of Nature, and the use of the same faculties, should be equal one amongst another without Subordination or Subjection …. (1690, II. 4. ¶ 2)

The Lockean conception of equality that underwrites Jefferson’s revolutionary doctrine of individual liberty is, as Roderick Long (2001a) has argued, equality of political authority. Jefferson and Locke denied, as arbitrary, the Old Regime’s claim of a natural entitlement to lordship over their fellow creatures. Ranks of superior and inferior political authority were not established by natural differences in station or ordained by the will of God Almighty. Political coercion is the material expression of a claim of unequal authority: one person is entitled to dictate terms over another’s person and property, and the other can be forced to obey. Declaring universal equality thus means denying all such claims of lordship, and, thus, asserting that everyone has authority over herself, and over herself alone. Equality is the context within which the principle of self-ownership, and thus the demand for individual freedom, takes root. This connection can be seen most explicitly in the second Spooner challenge above. Spooner’s demand to know how free and independent people are “compacted” together into a State against their will is intimately connected with the protest against arbitrary assertions of a right to dominate the affairs of others. Long points out that neither socioeconomic equality nor formal legal equality “calls into question the authority of those who administer the legal system; such administrators are merely required to ensure equality, of the relevant sort, among those administered. … Lockean equality involves not merely equality before legislators, judges, and police, but, far more crucially, equality with legislators, judges, and police” (¶¶ 22–25). Whether or not Jefferson was right to treat the equality of authority as self-evident, a minarchist should hardly want to deny that it is true. The idea that legitimate governments must be constrained by the non-aggression principle no less than private citizens, and the individualist conception of rights, seem clearly rooted in the notion of equal authority.[32]

But whenever a minarchist brandishes equality of authority against statism, she also undermines her case for any form of State sovereignty. Considering liberty in light of equality systematically undermines both of the objections considered above, and justifies the unlimited demand for Liberty that I have employed. Insofar as the first objection depends on consequentialist calculation—holding that liberty can be sacrificed either in the name of other goods, or in the name of maximizing the total amount of liberty going around—it necessarily conflicts with a demand for equal authority. The objection presupposes someone to do the consequentialist calculations, supposedly entitled to treat all goods, no matter whom they belong to, as common booty to be distributed. By claiming the right to volunteer not only her own liberty, but also other people’s liberty for sacrificial duty, the consequentialist exempts herself from the standard of equality, pretending that she is entitled to stand over everyone and pass judgment on their liberty, taking some from Peter and rendering some to Paul in the name of the cause. Equality means that other people’s lives and livelihoods are not hers to give, no matter the results she might get from it.[33]

The second sort of objection conflicts with equality in a different way. It suggests, not that someone can legitimately violate one person’s liberty in order to secure benefits for others, but that the force involved in establishing sovereignty cannot be assessed under standards of liberty at all, because the categorization of force as either aggressive or defensive is only meaningful within the context of a functioning government legal order. Thus, Bidinotto’s argument (1994) that the demand for liberty, when applied unconditionally outside the background context of a limited sovereign government, divorces rights-claims from the “final standard” to settle them, and degrades into a programme for unrestrained tyranny and civil war.

But it is Bidinotto, not the anarchist, who strips the concept of liberty out of its proper context. The objection depends on a particular picture of the State and its laws, which is as metaphysically illusive as it is captivating. The State is imagined as a sort of titan standing over civil society, binding it to its will and acting on it from without. The constraints that a particular government imposes under the mantle of State authority may be tyrannical or just, but whether used properly or abused, the peculiar standpoint and the constraining force of the State seem necessary for any stable social order, and sufficient to decisively settle disputes just by being asserted. Since anarchy dispenses with the external constraints of the State, the minarchist feels that all rights-claims will be left, as it were, hanging in the air, with no final authority to ground them. It is this mystique of the State that Randolph Bourne set out to expose by distinguishing amongst the Nation, the State, and the Government:

The State is the country acting as a political unit, it is the group acting as a repository of force, determiner of law, arbiter of justice. … Government on the other hand is synonymous with neither State nor Nation. It is the machinery by which the nation, organized as a State, carries out its State functions. Government is a framework of the administration of laws, and the carrying out of the public force. Government is the idea of the State put into practical operation in the hands of definite, concrete, fallible men. It is the visible sign of the invisible grace. It is the word made flesh. And it has necessarily the limitations inherent in all practicality. Government is the only form in which we can envisage the State, but it is by no means identical with it. That the State is a mystical conception is something that must never be forgotten. Its glamor and its significance linger behind the framework of Government and direct its activities. (Bourne 1919, § 1 ¶¶ 8-9)

Equality of authority dulls the mystical glamor of State authority. The law is a human institution, and the legitimate authority of individual rights-claims does not need to be grounded in the dominance of a sovereign, or proclaimed from a standpoint beyond the fragile social relationships among fallible, mortal human beings. A good thing, too, since there is no Olympian standpoint for the State to occupy; governments are made of people with no more special authority than you or I—even when they are speaking ex cathedra in the name of the State. Rights are grounded in the claims that each of us, as ordinary human beings, are entitled to hold each other to, and are implemented not by paper laws but by the concrete social and cultural relationships we participate in. Roderick Long (2008) shows that if the “final standard” demanded by Bidinotto is the realistic finality that comes from a broad consensus that an issue has been settled and should not be revisited, then it can be achieved through anarchist institutions no less than through a government; if the “finality” demanded is some sort of self-applying, self-grounding finality immune to even the possibility of further dispute, then that is not available even under a government, the mystique of State authority notwithstanding.[34] The choice is not between a system where disputes are never meaningfully settled and one where they are, but between one in which they are settled through a decentralized network of institutions holding each other in check, or through a centralized hierarchy forcing others to defer to it. And, as Long argues, anarchy actually provides a better hope for disputes to be settled justly than minarchy—especially when an arbitrator is herself a party to the dispute—because under anarchy the watchers are themselves watched, and are less able to force through unjust rulings simply in virtue of their dominant position.

The context of a concept is often conceived as a constraint on the concept, and context-dropping as a matter of applying the concept more widely than it should be applied. But dropping the context of a concept could make you go wrong in either of two ways: improper abstraction might inflate the application of the concept beyond its domain of significance; or it might conceal the concept’s significance in cases where it should be applied. Understood in the context of Equality, the principle of Liberty becomes more radical, not less, challenging all forms of State mysticism with the standard of individual sovereignty. Dispelling the mystical conception of the State also reveals the need for concrete attitudes, practices and relationships to sustain a free society, not just paper laws to “limit” tyranny. Which brings me to Solidarity.

Solidarity

I have chosen the word “Solidarity” to stand for a family of cultural and political commitments usually associated with the radical Left, among them labor radicalism, populism, internationalism, anti-racism, gay liberation, and radical feminism. These commitments share a common concern with the class dynamics of power and a sensitivity to expressions of non-governmental forms of oppression. They demand fundamental change in the cultural and material conditions faced by oppressed people, and propose that the oppressed organize themselves into autonomous movements to struggle for those changes. They also emphasize strikes, boycotts, mutual aid, worker cooperatives, and other forms of collective action, both as a means to social transformation and also as foundational institutions of the transformed society once achieved. These shared concerns and demands have often been summed up in the call for “social justice”—a slogan assailed by Hayek (1978) and reflexively associated, by libertarians and state Leftists alike, with expansion of the anti-discrimination and welfare bureaucracies.

But solidaritarian ends can be separated from authoritarian means, and the relationship between Liberty and Solidarity has not always been so chilly. 19th century libertarians, particularly the individualist anarchists associated with Benjamin Tucker’s magazine Liberty, identified with the cultural radicalism of their day – including the labor movement, abolitionism, First Wave feminism, freethought, and “free love.” Indeed, while Tucker described his position as “Absolute Free Trade; … laissez faire the universal rule” (1888, ¶ 21), he and his circle routinely identified themselves as socialists—not to set themselves against the ideal of the free market, but against actually existing big business. They argued that plutocratic control over finance and capital was the creature of, and the driving force behind, government economic regimentation and government-granted monopolies.[35] The Tuckerite individualists saw the invasive powers of the State as intimately connected and mutually reinforcing with the exploitation of labor, racism, patriarchy, and other forms of oppression, with governments acting to enforce social privilege, and drawing ideological and material support from existing power dynamics.[36] From their point of view, attacking statism alone, without addressing the broader social context, would be narrow and ultimately self-frustrating.

Today the leading intellectual force in the effort to connect libertarianism with a comprehensive vision of human liberation is Chris Sciabarra,[37] who has advanced the argument in a series of books and articles over the past two decades, most extensively in his “Dialectics and Liberty” trilogy (1995b, 1995a, 2000). Sciabarra persuasively advocates a dialectical orientation in libertarian social thought, which attends not only to the structural dynamics of statism but also to the extragovernmental context of statism in cultural, psychological, and philosophical dimensions. But unlike the 19th century individualists, Sciabarra argues that dialectics pose a substantial challenge to libertarian anarchism. In Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, he sympathetically interprets Rand’s polemical defense of minarchism as a dialectical effort to transcend a false dualism between statism and anarchism (1995a, 278-283). In Total Freedom he devotes four chapters to a charitable but systematic critique of Rothbard’s anarcho-capitalism, and the underlying conception of liberty as “universally applicable, regardless of the context within which it is embedded or applied” (2000, 218). Sciabarra argues that, at crucial junctures, Rothbard idealizes the market and the State into dualistic, opposed spheres, related only through “the external, mutually antagonistic relationship between voluntarism and coercion” (2000, 355). This dualism leads Rothbard to romanticize market processes, proposing “the monistic, utopian resolution of anarcho-capitalism, in which the state’s functions were fully absorbed by the market” (360). Thus Rothbard limits libertarianism to a narrow focus on structural and political questions, and exhibits a “lack of attention to the vast context within which [libertarian principles] might exist, evolve, and thrive” (355).[38]

Whether or not Rothbard himself is actually guilty of the “unanchored utopianism” Sciabarra attributes to him (2000, 202), Sciabarra’s criticism identifies real strands of thought within the individualist anarchist tradition.[39] But in light of the discussion of Equality above, it seems that minarchists are actually far more prone to synoptic delusions and narrowly political reform than anarchists: the mystique of State authority depends on a picture of the State as an external constraint on civil society, whereas egalitarian anarchism highlights the fact that freedom is a matter of concrete relations within society. In any case, the best response to Sciabarra’s challenge is to exhibit a dialectical anarchism, which connects anarchism with a systematic understanding and critique of the dynamics of social power, both inside and outside of the State apparatus. To aid in doing so, I’d like to set out some of the different possible relationships between libertarianism and “thicker” bundles of socio-cultural commitments, which would recommend integrating the two:

  1. Entailment thickness: the commitments might just be applications of libertarian principle to some special case, following from non-aggression simply in light of non-contradiction.[40]

  2. Application thickness: it might be that you could reject commitments without formally contradicting the non-aggression principle, but not without in fact interfering with its proper application. Principles beyond libertarianism alone may be necessary for determining where my rights end and yours begin, or stripping away conceptual blinders that prevent certain violations of liberty from being recognized as such.

  3. Strategic thickness: certain ideas, practices, or projects may be causal preconditions for a flourishing free society, giving libertarians strategic reasons to endorse them. Although rejecting them would be logically compatible with libertarianism, it might make it harder for libertarian ideas to get much purchase, or might lead a free society towards poverty, statism or civil war.

  4. Grounds thickness: some commitments might be consistent with the non-aggression principle, but might undermine or contradict the deeper reasons that justify libertarian principles. Although you could consistently accept libertarianism without the bundle, you could not do so reasonably: rejecting the bundle means rejecting the grounds for libertarianism.

  5. Conjunction thickness: commitments might be worth adopting for their own sakes, independent of libertarian considerations. All that is asserted is that you ought to be a libertarian (for whatever reason), and, as it happens, you also ought to accept some further commitments (for independent reasons).

The two extreme cases, entailment thickness and conjunction thickness, can largely be set aside, since the “relationship” between libertarianism and the further commitment is either so tight (identity) or so loose (mere conjunction) as to make the point vacuous. But the three intermediate cases of application thickness, strategic thickness, and grounds thickness make deeper connections between libertarianism and a rich set of further commitments that naturally complement libertarianism.

Consider the conceptual and strategic reasons that libertarians have to oppose authoritarianism, not only as enforced by governments but also as expressed in culture, business, the family, and civil society. If libertarianism is rooted in the principle of equality of authority, then there are good reasons to think that not only political structures of coercion, but also the whole system of status and unequal authority deserves libertarian criticism. And it is important to realize that that system includes not only exercises of coercive power, but also a knot of ideas, practices, and institutions based on deference to traditionally constituted authorities. In the political realm, these patterns of deference show up most clearly in the honorary titles, submissive etiquette, and unquestioning obedience extended to heads of state, judges, police, and other visible representatives of government “law and order.” Although these rituals and habits of obedience exist against the backdrop of statist coercion and intimidation, they are also often practiced voluntarily. Similar expectations of deference show up, to greater or lesser degrees, in cultural attitudes towards bosses in the workplace, and parents in the family. Submission to traditionally constituted authorities is reinforced not only through violence and threats, but also through art, humor, sermons, historiography, journalism, childrearing, etc. Although political coercion is the most distinctive expression of inequality of authority, you could—in principle—have an authoritarian social order without the exercise of coercion. Even in an anarchist society, everyone might voluntarily agree to bow and scrape when speaking before the (mutually agreed-on) town Chief. So long as the expectation of deference was backed up only by means of verbal harangues, social ostracism of “unruly” dissenters, culturally glorifying the authorities, etc., it would violate no-one’s individual liberty and could not justifiably be resisted with force.

But while there’s nothing logically inconsistent about envisioning these sorts of societies, it is certainly weird. If the underlying reason for committing to libertarian politics is rooted in the equality of political authority, then even strictly voluntary expressions of inequality are hard to reasonably reconcile with libertarianism. Yes, the meek could voluntarily agree to bow and scrape, and the proud could angrily but nonviolently demand obsequious forms of address and immediate obedience to their fiat. But why should they? Libertarian equality delegitimizes the notion of a natural right to rule or dominate other people’s affairs; the vision of human beings as rational, independent agents of their own destiny renders deference and unquestioning obedience ridiculous at best, and probably dangerous to liberty in the long run. While no-one should be forced to treat her fellows with the respect due to equals, or cultivate independent self-reliance and contempt for the arrogance of power, libertarians certainly can—and should—criticize those who do not, and exhort our fellows not to rely on authoritarian social institutions, for reasons of both grounds and strategic thickness.

General commitments to anti-authoritarianism, if applied to specific forms of social power, have far-reaching implications for the relationship between libertarianism and anti-racism, gay liberation, and other movements for social transformation. I have written elsewhere on the strategic and conceptual importance of radical feminist insights to libertarianism, and vice versa.[41] The causal and conceptual interconnections between patriarchal authority, the cult of violent masculinity, and the militaristic State have been discussed by radical feminists such as Andrea Dworkin and Robin Morgan, as well as radical libertarians such as Herbert Spencer and, more recently, Carol Moore.[42] Moreover, the insights of feminists such as Susan Brownmiller into the pervasiveness of rape, battery, and other forms of male violence against women, present both a crisis and an opportunity for the application of libertarian principles.

Libertarianism professes to be a comprehensive theory of human freedom; what supposedly distinguishes the libertarian theory of justice is that we concern ourselves with violent coercion no matter who is practicing it. But what feminists have forced into the public eye in the last 30 years is that we live in a society where one out of every four women faces rape or battery by an intimate partner,[43] and where women are threatened or attacked by men who profess to love them, because the men coercing them believe they have a right to control “their” women. Male violence against women is nominally illegal but nevertheless systematic, motivated by the desire for control, culturally excused, and hideously ordinary. For libertarians, this should sound eerily familiar; confronting the reality of male violence means nothing less than recognizing the existence of a violent political order working alongside, and independently of, the violent political order of statism.[44] Male supremacy has its own ideological rationalizations, its own propaganda, its own expropriation, and its own violent enforcement; although often in league with the male-dominated State, male violence is older, more invasive, closer to home, and harder to escape than most forms of statism. To seriously oppose all political violence, libertarians need to fight, at least, a two-front war, against both statism and male supremacy. It is, then, important to note how the ideological dichotomy between “personal” and “political” problems, so often criticized by feminists,[45] has tended to blank out systemic male violence from libertarian analysis. And also how the writings of some libertarians on the family—especially those identified with the “paleolibertarian” political-cultural project—have amounted to little more than outright denial of male violence. Hans-Hermann Hoppe, for example, goes so far as to indulge in the conservative fantasy that the traditional “internal layers and ranks of authority” in the family are actually bulwarks of “resistance vis-a-vis the state” (Hoppe 2001 § IV). Those “ranks of authority” in the family mean the pater familias; but whether father-right is, at a given historical moment, in league with or at odds with State prerogatives, the fact that it is so widely enforced by the threat or practice of male violence makes enlisting it in the struggle against statism look much like enlisting Stalin to fight Hitler—no matter who wins, we all lose.

Considerations of grounds and strategy also suggest important connections between anarchism and the virtue of voluntary mutual aid between workers, in the form of community organizations, charitable projects, and labor unions. Once again, the underlying reasons for valuing Liberty also give good reasons for committing to voluntary solidarity with your fellow people. One could in principle believe that everyone ought to be free to pursue her own ends while also holding that nobody’s ends actually matter except her own.[46] But again, while the position is possible, it is weird; one of the best reasons for being concerned about the freedom of others to pursue their own ends is a certain generalized respect for the importance of other people’s lives and the integrity of their choices, which is intimately connected with the libertarian conception of Equality. That says nothing in favor of forcing you to participate in welfare schemes,[47] or robbing Peter to pay Paul; but it does say something for working with your neighbors in voluntary cooperative efforts to improve your own lives or the lives of others. It’s likely also that networks of voluntary aid organizations would be strategically important to individual flourishing in a free society, in which there would be no expropriative welfare bureaucracy for people living with poverty or precarity to fall back on. Projects reviving the bottom-up, solidaritarian spirit of the independent unions and mutual aid societies that flourished in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, before the rise of the welfare bureaucracy, may be essential for a flourishing free society, and one of the primary means by which workers could take control of their own lives, without depending on either bosses or bureaucrats.[48]

If 20th century libertarians have mostly failed to emphasize the potential for cooperative mutual aid, the failure can be traced to two related confusions, born of undialectical analysis and the failure to integrate Liberty with Solidarity. The first conflates the principles of mutual aid with government coercion in the name of “social welfare”—most dramatically in the visceral hostility most 20th century libertarians expressed towards labor unionism. Libertarian critics have often condemned unions as “bands of thugs,”[49] the government-privileged foot soldiers of a stagnant, interventionist political economy. Currently existing labor unions do use coercive means to organize—in the United States, employers are forced to enter into collective bargaining with unions that gain National Labor Relations Board recognition, and non-violent means of opposing unionization drives, such as retaliatory firing, are legally prohibited. The official, government-privileged union establishment also has for decades sought more government planning and economic intervention. But treating the existing union establishment as representative of the essential features of organized labor disregards the historical process by which unions were co-opted, captured, and domesticated by the expanding State bureaucracy during the 1920s-1950s. The process was achieved with the collaboration of one conservative faction within the labor movement, represented most visibly by the “business unionism” of the AFL, which gained leverage over its many competitors and seats in the back-rooms of power through the new system of patronage.[50] It would be hard to discover from the writings of anti-union libertarians that labor unions existed before the Wagner Act of 1935, or that around the turn of the century one of the most vibrant wings of organized labor were the radical, anarchist-led unions, most famously the I.W.W., which rejected all attempts to influence or capture State power.[51] They argued that putting economic power into the government’s hands deprived workers of control over their own fate, and wasted unions’ resources on bureaucracy and partisan maneuvering. Although they worked for incremental improvements in wages and conditions, they ultimately hoped to win not reforms of the existing capitalist system, but workers’ ownership of the “means of production”—the land, factories, and tools they labored with—not through the political means of expropriation (as the Marxists suggested), but through the economic means of free association, agitation, direct action, voluntary strikes, union solidarity, and mutual aid between workers, which would “build a new society within the shell of the old.” The emerging new society, far from the central planning boards of state socialism, would be a world of independent contractors and worker-owned co-ops, organized from the bottom up by the workers themselves.

It was only through the political collaboration of the establishmentarian union bosses and the “Progressive” business class—in the form of violent persecution of the radicals, such as the Palmer raids, and government patronage to establishment unions through the NLRB—that the centralized, statist unionism of the AFL-CIO rose to dominance within the labor movement.[52] Union methods are legally regulated and union demands effectively constrained to modest (and easily revoked) improvements in wages and conditions—with issues such as workers’ voice in the workplace, let alone control of the means of production, dropped entirely. The only real power remaining to effect more substantial changes comes through their power as organized blocs for lobbying and electioneering. If unionism is today mostly statist, then it is because unions are largely what the State has made them, through the usual carrots and sticks of government interventionism.

General Motors has benefited at least as much from government patronage as the UAW, yet libertarian criticism of the magnates of state capitalism is hardly extended to business as such in the way that criticism of existing unions is routinely extended to any form of organized labor. The difference in treatment is no doubt closely connected with the emphasis many 20th century libertarians placed on defending capitalism against the attacks of state socialists. While they were right to see that existing modes of production should not be further distorted by even greater government regimentation, this insight was often perverted into the delusion that existing modes of production would be the natural outcome of an undistorted market. The confusion has been encouraged by systematic ambiguity in the term “capitalism,” which has been used to name at least three different economic systems:

  1. The free market: any economic order that emerges from voluntary exchanges of property and labor, free of government intervention and other forms of systemic coercion.

  2. The corporate State: government intervention favoring cartelized big business, through subsidies, tax-funded infrastructure, central banking, production boards, eminent domain seizures, government union-busting, etc.

  3. Alienation of labor: a specific form of labor market, in which the dominant economic activity is production in workplaces strictly divided by class, where most workers work for a boss, in return for a wage, surviving by renting out their labor to someone else. The shop, and the tools and facilities that make it run, are owned by the boss or by absentee owners to whom the boss reports, not by the workers themselves.

Since government intervention always ends with the barrel of a gun, free market “capitalism” and corporate state “capitalism” cannot coexist at the same time and in the same respect. “Capitalism” in the third sense—the alienation of labor—is a category independent of “capitalism” in either of the first two senses. There are many ways that a labor market might turn out; it could be organized into traditional employer-employee relationships, worker co-ops, community workers’ councils, or a diffuse network of shopkeeps and independent contractors. Unflinching free marketeers might advocate any of these, or might be indifferent as to which prevails; interventionist statists might also favor traditional employer-employee relationships (as under fascism) or any number of different arrangements (as under state communism). Once these three senses are disentangled, it is important to see how 20th century libertarian defenses of “capitalism” against interventionist critique have fallen into a second conflation, between economic defenses of (1) the free market, and (2, 3) the way that big business operates in the unfree market that actually exists today. This confused approach, aptly dubbed “vulgar libertarianism” by Kevin Carson,[53] obscures the ways in which actually existing businesses benefit from pervasive government intervention, and blinds “capitalist” libertarians to the affinity between anti-statist models of labor organizing and libertarian defenses of free markets.

Disentangling free market economics from the particular market structure of alienated labor reveals some good reasons to think that there are serious economic problems with bureaucratic, centralized corporate commerce that rose to dominance in the 19th and 20th centuries under the auspices of “Nationalist” and “Progressive” interventionism.[54] Central planners face the knowledge problems identified by Mises, Hayek, and Rothbard whether those planners are government or corporate bureaucrats.[55] If workers are often deeply unhappy with the regimented, authoritarian structure of corporate workplaces, then there is also reason to believe that many would happily dump the bosses off their backs in favor of more autonomous forms of work, as those become widespread, successful, and economically reliable. Thus there is reason to think that in a free market less hierarchical, less centralized, more worker-focused forms of production would multiply and bureaucratic big business would wither under the pressure of competition.[56] Since the cooperative, bottom-up model of labor unionism offers one of the best existing models for practically asserting workers’ self-interest, and ultimately replacing boss-centric industry with decentralized, worker-centric production, there are good reasons for libertarians to integrate wildcat unionism into their understanding of social power.

Solidaritarian considerations may also shed some light on the standing debate amongst libertarians over secession and constitutional centralism. Liberty in the abstract demands a universal right of secession; to keep any one person or any group of people under a government that they wish to exit requires you to violate their individual liberty in at least one of the three ways challenged above. But voluntarily organized protection agencies, arbiters, etc. could still claim wide or narrow jurisdictions, and could organize their administrative and juridical functions into rigid hierarchies or take a more “horizontal,” decentralized approach. Affirming a right of secession does not answer the constitutional question of which free arrangement libertarians ought to prefer. But the same solidaritarian considerations that tell against centralization and hierarchy in making widgets should tell even more strongly against centralization and hierarchy in political power. The pretensions of the powerful threaten a free society when it is hard to defend yourself physically against abuses of the power entrusted to defense associations, or intellectually against the allure of State mysticism. And there are good prima facie reasons to suppose that people will be better able to resist both threats by devolving power from centralized seats of power down to the local level, with arbitration and enforcement handled face-to-face through diffuse networks of local associations, rather than mediated through powerful, bureaucratized hegemons.

Centralists may object that the historical record is more complex, and less favorable to decentralism, than prima facie considerations would suggest. While a centralized political power has more resources and a wider scope to enforce coercive demands, local powers are often more subject to parochial prejudices, and can often enforce them with force that is less diffuse, closer to home, and therefore more intense than anything a mighty but remote central government could muster. American history seems to illustrate this point dramatically with the case of the Confederacy, in which the opponents of federal power urged secession in order to strengthen and perpetuate the absolute tyranny of chattel slavery.[57] But what is needed here is a more radical decentralism, dissociated from the humbug of “states’ rights.” Decentralist libertarians are perfectly justified in supporting the white Southerners’ right to secede, and condemning the bayonet-point Unionism of the Civil War—provided that they also support black slaves’ rights to secede from the Southern states, and condemn the bayonet-point paternalism of the Southern slave-lords. The approach here is to condemn the federal war against secession, while also supporting the efforts of black Southerners to free themselves, through escape or open rebellion.[58] The problem with the Confederacy was not the defiance of federal authority, but the elevation of state authority over the objections of poor whites and black slaves: too much, not too little, centralized power. Nothing other than pure mysticism limits secession to states or provinces: provincial governments enjoy no more sovereign authority over their citizens than the federal government does, and the same principles that justify the withdrawal of states from the federal union also justify counties or cities withdrawing from state governments, and neighborhoods or individual citizens withdrawing from local governments, or from any government anywhere.

Liberty, understood in the context of Equality and Solidarity, calls for political revolution against all forms of government, no matter how “limited,” and overweening centralization of power even in non-coercive institutions. But “revolution” itself takes on a different character when the obscuring haze of State mysticism has been dispelled. If “revolution” means the process of dissolving the legal authority of a government, then revolution is quite easy to achieve. You have no obligation to obey any government longer than you choose to remain under it; once you have declared your intent to withdraw from the State, no government on earth has the authority to force you to recognize its authority over you—let alone to force you to pay taxes or regiment your behavior. If a government’s orders invade your rights—and all governments’ orders eventually do—then you have every right to withdraw from, ignore, defy, or resist it however seems best to you. Earlier, I stated that this essay’s purpose was political revolution; then I stated that it was merely to convince you to become an anarchist. But it should now be clear that I was not moving the goalposts. If you become an anarchist, then you have already completed the revolution: no government on earth has any legitimate authority to bind you to any obligation that you did not already have on your own. It’s a mistake to think of the State as holding you under its authority while you struggle to escape; at the most, it has power, not authority over you. As far as your former government is concerned, you have the moral standing not of a subject, but of the head of a revolutionary state of one.

Of course, that leaves the question of how best to defend your revolutionary state from counter-revolutionary invasion. Declaring yourself independent really is enough to release you from any obligation to your former government—but try telling that to the judge. Still, the first task is to recognize your situation for what it is. Minarchism, by leaving the myth of legal authority unchallenged, concedes moral dignity to the statists that they have not earned. The point is to challenge not only the abuses of government authority, but the normal uses of that authority—to see the taxmen, policemen, hangmen, and Congressmen who invade your liberties not as unruly representatives of a State with authority over you, but a sanctimonious gang of robbers, swindlers, and usurpers bringing war upon you. Once you have recognized that, you can begin to think intelligently about the best cultural and material arrangements for defending against them. I have already discussed a few of the particulars above; the rest is another discussion for another essay.[59]

Charles Johnson (2008)

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[1] For the purposes of this essay, I will mostly be using the term “anarchism” as shorthand for “individualist anarchism;” since the defense of anarchism I will offer rests on individualist principles, it will not provide a cogent basis for communist, primitivist, or other non-individualist forms of anarchism. And I will use the term “individualist anarchism” in a broad sense, to describe any position that (1) denies the legitimacy of any form of (monopoly) government authority, (2) on individualist ethical grounds. As I will use it, the term picks out a family of similar doctrines, not a particular self-description or historical tradition. Thus it includes, but is not limited to, the specific 19th and early 20th century socialist movement known as “individualist anarchism,” whose members included Benjamin Tucker, Victor Yarros, and Voltairine de Cleyre. It also includes the views of 20th and 21st century“anarcho-capitalists” such as Murray Rothbard and David Friedman; contemporary self-described “individualist anarchists” and “mutualists” such as Wendy McElroy, Joe Peacott, and Kevin Carson; and of others, such as Gustave de Molinari, Lysander Spooner, or Robert LeFevre, who rejected the State on individualist grounds but declined (for whatever reasons) to refer to themselves as “anarchists.” Many self-described “socialist” anarchists deny that “anarcho-capitalism” should be counted as a form of anarchism at all, or associated with individualist anarchism in particular; many self-described “anarcho-capitalists” deny that “socialist” anarchism should be counted as a form of genuine individualism, or genuine anarchism. With all due respect to my comrades on the Left and on the Right, I will use the term in an ecumenical sense, for reasons of style, and also because the relationship between anarchism, “capitalism,” and “socialism” is one of the substantive issues to be discussed in the course of this essay.

[3] “Libertarianism” as discussed in this essay is a theory of political justice, not a position on the Nolan Chart. “Small government” types who speak kindly of economic freedom or civil liberties may or may not qualify as “libertarians” for the purpose of my discussion. Those who treat liberty as one political good that must be balanced against other goods such as social stability, economic prosperity, democratic rule, or socioeconomic equality, and should sometimes be sacrificed for their sake, are unlikely to count. Since they are not committed to the ideal of liberty as a principled constraint on all political power, they are no more likely to be directly convinced by my arguments than progressives, traditionalists, communists, etc.

[4] Of course, the male Left of the day actually demanded fraternité, “brotherhood.” I’ll speak of “solidarity” instead of “brotherhood” for the obvious anti-sexist reasons, and also for its association with the history of the labor movement. There are few causes in America that most 20th century libertarians were less sympathetic to than organized labor, but I have chosen to speak of “the value of solidarity,” in spite of all that, for the same reasons that Ayn Rand chose to speak of “the virtue of selfishness:” in order to prove a point. The common criticisms of organized labor from the 20th century libertarian movement, and the relationship between liberty and organized labor, are one of the topics I will discuss below.

[5] Thus the libertarian emphasis on both personal freedom and private property rights. One way to treat someone as if she were your slave is to force her to serve your ends rather than her own: by forcing her to apply her own labor and property to some end that she would not have freely agreed to support, or by forcing her to withhold her own labor and property from some end that she would have freely agreed to support. Another way to treat someone as if she were your slave is to force her to labor for your profit. Even if you do not force her to work on one job rather than another, you are still effectively enslaving her by taking the fruits of her labor for your own purposes.

[6] Thus Jefferson 1776a: “… That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men [sic], deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” (¶ 2).

[7] It should be clear that this is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for counting as the government of a given State. Anybody might claim the right to issue enforceable legal orders, but only some of the claimants are part of the government. (I gather that there are still Bourbon pretenders who claim the right to rule France; but whatever their aspirations, they are not currently the government of France.) But for any institution to count as the government, it must at least make the claim, or act in a way that manifests the claim: an institution that did not even claim the right to make enforceable legal orders might very well issue political position papers; it might give advice on how to live; but it would not be making laws.

[8] This is a deliberate revision to the Weberian conception of the State as a monopoly on the use of legally accepted force. While most modern governments claim such sweeping authority over enforcement, it is sheer anachronism to try to build a claim of territorial monopoly into the definition of the State. Historically many constitutions have taken it for granted that certain forms of force (e.g. by parents against children, by husbands against wives, by masters against slaves) are simply outside of the purview of the law. It’s true that under most States throughout history, parents have been able to beat their children without legal repercussions. But it would be a serious mistake to infer from this that the government (as sole arbiter of legal enforcement in the territory within which the family lives) has authorized or deputized parents to beat their children. Rather, the enforceable authority of parents over children was thought simply to be a “private” matter, beyond the “public” realm of questions that the State claims to address. The enforceability of parental authority is quite arguably treated as a political given that the State recognizes, more akin to one State’s recognition of the sovereignty of other States than to the State’s authorization of the use of force by deputies, posses, or militias. Some implications of this idea are teased out below in the discussion of “application thickness.”

[9] By using “legitimate” as a modifier on “authority,” I’ve illustrated an important point, but also run a serious risk. If I speak of “legitimate authority,” that might seem to suggest that I’m not distinguishing authority from mere power, but rather distinguishing two different kinds of authority—the legitimate kind and the illegitimate kind. Then it would seem that the issue between minarchists and anarchists is not whether governments have the authority they claim, but rather whether the authority they have is legitimate authority or illegitimate authority. But this is a serious mistake, which I think leads to other mistakes. For now, it will be enough to note that, as I am using the terms “legitimacy” and “authority,” all genuine authority is legitimate authority. “Illegitimate authority” is not a special kind of authority which is illegitimate, any more than “counterfeit money” is a special kind of money which is counterfeit. Illegitimate authority is, rather, mere power, fraudulently portrayed as rightful authority.

[10] Suppose, for example, that Norton is an avid birder, and Twain cannot tell a jackdaw from a magpie. Then when Norton points out a bird and says, “That is a jackdaw,” Twain ought to consider it a jackdaw, because Norton said so—even if Twain has no other reason for considering it a jackdaw besides Norton’s say-so. Why? Because Norton said so, and Norton knows something about jackdaws whereas Twain knows nothing about them, so Twain ought to defer to Norton’s judgment.

[11] Similarly, it is not enough for a minarchist to show that if you organize government officials into such-and-such a constitutional order, the institution you’ve organized will systematically tend towards making correct rulings on matters of legal right. While the source of the ruling may justify a (defeasible) presumption that it can legitimately be enforced, the way that it justifies has nothing to do with government authority.

[12] Taken severally, each challenge poses a problem for one of forms of special authority that minarchists have traditionally wanted governments to exercise. I think the import of each individual challenge is actually less than anarchists have historically thought: minarchists could respond to any individual challenge by revising their theory, and promoting an even more minimalist government that abdicates the function that each challenge called into question. But taken together, the three challenges jointly whittle a “properly limited government” down to no government at all: any institution that minarchists could make consistent with liberty, in light of all three challenges, would have abandoned all claims of sovereign authority, and thus abdicated the throne.

[13] See, for example, “The Nature of Government,” in Rand 1964, 113.

[14] See “Government Financing in a Free Society,” in Rand 1964, 116-120.

[16] Ibid.<, 107; emphasis on “exclusive” added.

[17] It could go on calling itself a “government,” of course—just as Emperor Norton went on calling himself Emperor of North America even though he had no subjects except those who voluntarily played along with his game. But it would no longer be a “government” in any sense that’s incompatible with individualist anarchism. (Specifically, whatever it fancied itself, it would no longer be claiming the sovereign authority of the State; see the section on Equality below.)

[18] Classical liberals and minarchist libertarians have sometimes tried to sidestep anarchist objections by appealing to the consent of the governed. Even if government sovereignty entails limitations on private citizens’ freedom to defend themselves directly, not all limitations on liberty violate libertarian principles: free people can bind themselves to new obligations by agreeing to contracts. Liberal theorists draw up the analogy of a “social contract,” and claim that private citizens can be bound to recognize the government’s sovereignty by explicit, or tacit, or hypothetical consent to the terms of the political system. This sort of reply could be made to any of the three challenges that I pose, and so deserves a response. Unfortunately, constraints of space prevent me from giving an adequate response. Fortunately, excellent systematic critiques of the claim already exist in Spooner 1867-1870 and the first chapter of Barnett 2004. In any case minarchists should be very hesitant to draw on appeals to tacit consent: exactly the same argument could just as easily be used to justify all forms of taxation (on the theory that citizens consented to pay for government expenses when they consented to the contract), many forms of invasive laws (on the theory that citizens consented to abide by the government’s standards of conduct or hygiene), etc. Most serious defenders of minarchism in the 20th century have seen this difficulty and have tried to develop theories which provide for the legitimacy of government without the need for unanimous consent, whether tacit or explicit.

[19] Cf. Nozick 1974, 105-108.

[20] Nozick, unlike some who advance the procedural argument, takes this point in stride: his argument is not that the government enjoys a special right over and above what private citizens enjoy, but rather that a locally dominant defense association, in the course of carrying out its daily business, will be put in the special position of either permitting or forbidding any efforts at private enforcement within its sphere of influence, due to its special position as the local hegemon. Nozick argues that this gives the agency a de facto monopoly on the authorization of force, without the exercise of special prerogatives and without treading on the liberty of the defense associations and private citizens constrained by the procedural protections. If this argument worked, then Nozick would have established a legitimate path for a locally dominant defense agency to assert sovereignty, without treading on the liberty of others. He also would have made the argument in precisely the way that I suggested a minarchist would need to: his argument would have demonstrated the connection between sovereignty and the special position of the government within society—specifically the special position conferred by being the sole dominant protective agency in a given locality. But as I shall argue presently, Nozick’s transition from procedural protection to ex ante procedural “oversight” will not bear scrutiny.

[21] A defense association (A) may very well be entitled to suppress a would-be enforcer (B) who refuses to disclose the procedures that she used to determine guilt. If A cannot discover whether a procedure is reliable or completely arbitrary, then they may be entitled to treat the claim as arbitrary pending further investigation. But it is up to A to do the leg-work of finding out what B’s procedures are before they declare that they cannot discover them. A can try to find out about B’s procedures by directly asking B, or by sending someone to sit in on B’s proceedings, or by asking former participants in B’s proceedings, or by finding out whether B has informed anyone else of her procedures, or in any number of other ways. A cannot simply sit back and demand that B submit to “oversight” as defined by A, or suppress B simply for failing to fill out the right forms. If A fails to make serious efforts at discovery, then it is they, not B, who are guilty of arbitrary and unreliable enforcement procedures.

[22] Suppose I announce, “I will stop anyone who tries to stab me with a knife. But I will not stop anyone who is only using a knife to slice a loaf of bread.” Have I claimed the right to oversee the use of knives? Have I permitted you to slice bread with a knife?

[23] Although this reply would indeed preserve a form of sovereignty against the Childs challenge, it is worth noting how radical a reduction in the size and scope of the “minimal State” is required to meet the challenge. A government that maintained only a monopoly on legislating and adjudicating rights, but left enforcing them up to private efforts, would be a very limited government indeed; it might very well have no police, no executive bureaucracy, no intelligence agencies, no border guards, and no armies. The microscopic State that resulted would be far more limited than Rand’s “limited government,” even more minimal than Nozick’s “ultraminimal state.” Sovereignty would be asserted by a properly limited government only insofar as general laws and rulings on specific legal disputes would be made under the authority of a single government. The microscopic State would have no authority to override or exclude private citizens from just efforts to protect their own rights, or the rights of others; its sovereignty would rest in its authority to act as a “final standard” on the definition and application of rights. In fact the closest historical analogue would be the constitution of medieval Iceland—a society most often discussed in libertarian literature for illustrations of what a functioning anarchy might look like. The Icelandic Free State was not an anarchy: there was a sovereign legislature (the Althing), which also served as a court of final appeal; but it remains interesting to anarchists because the legal order in Iceland functioned with no central executive. (For a detailed discussion of the constitution of medieval Iceland, see Byock 2001. Long 2002a sets out the both the continuities and departures from anarchist principles in the constitution of the Free State, and explains the eventual collapse of the Free State as the growth of the microscopic germs of government into bases of power for warlordism and civil war.)

[24] See also Spooner’s “Letter to Thomas F. Bayard” (1882a) and “Natural Law; or, the Science of Justice” (1882b) for close variations on the same challenge. Childs himself also anticipates something like this line of argument, and makes arguments that Rand’s epistemological and ethical positions demand a similar conclusion. I’ve picked out Spooner’s version of the challenge in the letter to Cleveland because it provides the most systematic exposition of the point.

[25] If the government passed a resolution stating that the square of the hypotenuse in a right triangle is always equal to the square of the other two sides, then the resolution would say something true, and something that everyone is obliged to believe. But it would hardly justify the claim that we need a properly geometrical government to serve as the “final arbiter” of the properties of right triangles.

[26] Spooner 1882b argues that the principles of justice are “usually a very plain and simple matter, easily understood by common minds” (Section IV ¶ 1), and that “Men [sic] living in contact with each other, and having intercourse together, cannot avoid learning natural law, to a very great extent” (Section IV ¶ 2). If so, then the “commands” of natural justice could all be understood as conclusions of arguments, without the need to appeal to the authority of experts. While I think that this is true of most if not all cases, nothing turns on it for the purposes of the challenge to legislative authority. If there are cases where understanding or applying the principles of justice requires expertise, then all those hard cases should be turned over to some expert for judgment. But it would be fallacious to infer from that that there must be some expert to whom all hard cases are turned over. In any case, the basis for the authority of the judgment would be acknowledged wisdom and judgment, not personal political position.

[27] It’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it…

[28] That does not mean that Twain can later renege and ignore Norton’s decision, if he consented to let Norton decide the case. It does mean that Twain can later decline to let Norton decide any more cases for him. See note 10 on the failure of historical liberal theories to meet the criteria for genuine consent, including those that rely on claims of “tacit consent.”

[29] Perhaps under dire enough circumstances – if, for example, the dispute is not only unresolved but careening towards a violent feud – the parties to the dispute could rightfully be forced to the bargaining table by an impartial third party. I am not confident that this is true, but I am not confident that it is false, either. What I am confident of is that, if third parties ever have the right to force arbitration, then the right is possessed by everyone, and has nothing to do with the special prerogatives of a government to arbitrate. For the government to claim an exclusive or superior authority to intervene within an arbitrarily asserted jurisdiction might not usurp the natural liberty of the disputants. But if it did not, then it would usurp the natural liberty of other potential arbiters, who would have just as much of a right to intervene as the self-styled “government.”

[30] I do, actually, think that the relationship between libertarianism and these forms of egalitarianism is more complex than many 20th century libertarians have suggested; but that’s an issue for later discussion.

[31] Jefferson makes this point even more explicitly, if less elegantly, in his original draft of the Declaration, where the same passage reads: “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable: that all men are created equal and independent; that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent and inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (1776b ¶ 2, emphasis added).

[32] The original conception of Equality from the revolutionary Left appreciates human plurality and supports an uncompromising individualism in politics—not the anonymizing mass politics of the statist Left, in both its “progressive” and “radical” incarnations. Nozick expresses the point admirably: “Side constraints express the inviolability of other persons. But why may not one violate persons for the greater social good? …. But there is no social entity with a good that undergoes some sacrifice for its own good. There are only individual people, different individual people, with their own individual lives. Using one of these people for the benefit of others, uses him [sic] and benefits the others. Nothing more. What happens is that something is done to him for the sake of others. Talk of an overall social good covers this up. (Intentionally?) To use a person in this way does not sufficiently respect and take account of the fact that he is a separate person, that his is the only life he has. He does not get some overbalancing good from his sacrifice, and no one is entitled to force this upon him—least of all a state or government” (1974, 32-33).

[33] The point here is not that deliberation about consequences is completely irrelevant to questions of justice. Like Roderick Long (2002b), I hold that, while deliberation about consequences cannot trump deliberation about rights, our understanding of the content of rights can be revised in light of consequences. (Thus, for example, consequentialist considerations can be important to determining the proper judgment in a case of reducing the natural law.) But if our judgments about the requirements of justice can be revised in light of reflection on the consequences, the revision can (indeed must) go the other way, too. What counts as a “good consequence” also partly depends on what justice demands; in particular, if bringing about a situation S involves you in initiating force against an innocent person, then S is not a good consequence: being unjust is a defeater for an end counting as something worth pursuing. It is in this sense that rights act as “side constraints” (Nozick 1974, 28-33) on moral deliberation.

[34] Government edicts have no more magical power to enforce themselves than decisions by anarchistic arbitrators. If someone is unhappy with the way a case was decided on final appeal, she can lobby Congress to change the law, or try to convince the President to appoint more congenial justices, or simply defy the ruling and try to find followers to stage a coup or a revolution…. See also Long 2006, which connects the mystical political conception behind the minarchist quest for legal finality with the mystical logical conception behind the metaphysical quest for a self-applying rule, as exposed by Wittgenstein’s writing on rule-following.

[35] See Tucker 1888 for an overview of the “four monopolies” that he believed to be at the root of both statism and the exploitation of labor: the land monopoly, the money monopoly, the tariff monopoly, and the patent monopoly. Chapter Five of Carson 2004 offers an excellent systematic overview of the views of Tucker and his fellow 19th century individualists on the four monopolies.

[37] This holistic picture of social power has been endangered and marginalized, but never completely eradicated, from libertarian theory in the 20th century. During the late 1960s and 1970s it was partially and fitfully revived by the efforts of libertarians such as Murray Rothbard, Karl Hess, and Sam Konkin to make common cause with anti-imperialist and anti-authoritarian elements in the New Left. For the locus classicus of this approach in the late 20th century libertarian movement, see Rothbard 1965.

[38] Sciabarra is at pains to make clear that his critique does not aim at a refutation of anarchism as such; his emphasis is methodological, and for his critique “The essential issue is not whether anarchism or minarchism is preferable—to some extent, the jury is still out on many of the important questions raised by either side” (341). But he suggests that dialectics call for substantial revision to existing defenses of anarchism, stating in reply to a review that “I remain profoundly suspicious of anarchism and the non-dialectical premises that seem to inspire it” (2002, 394).

[39] See Long 2001b for a detailed defense of Rothbard against Sciabarra’s criticism. But if the anti-dialectical Rothbard did not exist, Walter Block has invented him.

[40] An Aztec libertarian might urge, “Of course libertarianism has upshots for religious beliefs! It means you have to give up human sacrifice to Huitzilopochtli.”

[42] Cf. Dworkin 1983/1993, 165-166; Morgan 1989; Spencer 1851, Chapter XVI § 4; Moore 2006.

[43] See Tjaden and Thoennes 2000 on the findings of the NIJ/CDC National Violence Against Women Survey in 1995-1996. Statistics on violence against women have been hotly contested, and some of these disputes have been taken up by libertarian authors such as Wendy McElroy. But most of the discussion has focused on the findings of a single study, Mary Koss’s 1985 study of sexual assault amongst college women (which found that one in four college-aged women had suffered at least one act of rape or attempted rape in her lifetime). I think the criticisms of Koss are largely unfounded, but in any case Tjaden and Thoennes surveyed a broader sample, using more detailed questions, and definitions substantially more conservative than Koss; see pp. 3-12 for a discussion of the survey methodology. Detailed explanation and defense of the NVAWS figures, and of related feminist research into the prevalence and nature of gender violence is, as they say, beyond the scope of this essay, but for an excellent discussion of Koss’s findings that raises many salient general points, see Warshaw 1994, which includes both an analysis of the findings and a concluding methodological discussion by Koss.

[44] Thus Susan Brownmiller writes that “Man’s discovery that his genitalia could serve as a weapon to generate fear must rank as one of the most important discoveries of prehistoric times, along with the use of fire and the first crude stone axe. From prehistoric times to the present, I believe, rape has played a critical function. It is nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear” (1975, 15). Libertarian critics often dismiss Brownmiller’s and similar analyses on the grounds that not all men are rapists and not all women are raped, but this badly misunderstands Brownmiller’s point. Brownmiller is concerned with the systemic role of rape, considered as a social fact that affects all men and all women, whether or not the particular man commits rape or the particular woman suffers it. The fact that rape is so prevalent—even more prevalent than Brownmiller realized in 1975—and the constraints that the threat of rape imposes on all women in ordinary life systematically structures the social relationships between men and women, as Brownmiller details throughout her book. Similar remarks could be made about other pervasive forms of violence against women, such as wife beating. The systemic violence of male dominance ought to be recognizable to libertarians as a politically coercive order, even though it is usually carried out in “society,” independently of the State apparatus; as Catharine MacKinnon writes, “Unlike the ways in which men systematically enslave, violate, dehumanize, and exterminate other men, expressing political inequalities among men, men’s forms of dominance over women have been accomplished socially as well as economically, prior to the operation of the law, without express state acts, often in intimate contexts, as everyday life” (1989, 161).

[45] See Hanisch 1969/1978 for the original formulation of the idea that “the personal is political:” “So the reason I participate in these meetings is not to solve any personal problem. One of the first things we discover in these groups is that personal problems are political problems. There are no personal solutions at this time. There is only collective action for a collective solution.” It must be stressed that for Hanisch and other radical feminists, “collective action” and “political action” do not necessarily entail State action. The point is to recognize the conditions faced by individual women as expressions of an overarching system of social power, rather than sweeping it under the rug of the “private.” Cf. Johnson and Long 2005, §2.

[46] Perhaps that’s what Max Stirner believed.

[47] Quite the contrary; respect for your fellow human beings entails that you must respect each person’s perfect right to refuse or to withdraw her support, and vice versa—and that anyone who tries to force the unwilling to participate in their collective project is nothing more than a sanctimonious highwayman.

[48] During the late 19th and early 20th century, before the rise of the modern welfare State, there was in fact a vast and growing network of mutual aid societies in which low-income workers pooled their resources to gain affordable healthcare, small-scale credit, lifelong education, information about wages and conditions in workplaces, worker-run hiring halls, labor bargaining, strike relief, personal and cultural connections, old-age pensions, life insurance, and many other important services which were later co-opted and colonized by the emerging welfare bureaucracy. Sometimes the independent, government-free societies withered due to obsolescence; in other cases—particularly radical labor unions such as the Industrial Workers of the World—they were destroyed by violent government persecution. See Beito 2000 for an excellent discussion in the context of the rise and fall of voluntary “fraternal society” or “friendly society” lodges. Reconnecting with this history would have direct strategic benefits for libertarians, insofar as similar voluntary associations are likely to be an important part of any healthy free market. Besides those direct benefits, it may also be worth considering the likelihood that mutual aid projects based on free association and self-help could help divorce well-meaning Leftists from the mystique of the welfare State. (Even if it does not cure their souls, it may at least give them something less destructive to do with their time and resources.)

[49] Most recently by Walter Block (2006), in his working paper criticizing “thick libertarianism,” whether allied with Left-wing or Right-wing cultural politics.

[50] See Buhle 1999, especially Chapter 1 and pp. 119-136, on the consolidation of establishmentarian unionism and the “tripartite” system of managerial planning between the government, the captains of industry, and the labor bosses of the official unions.

[51] Cf. Ibid., 65-70.

[52] Under the smothering patronage of the Wagner/Taft-Hartley labor bureaucracy, official unions gained new political privileges that made them the most effective vehicles for workers’ short-term goals, allowing them to out-compete the unsubsidized unions. But the price of government privileges were government controls: the NLRB system constrained union goals to mediated settlements with management, and in 1947 the Taft-Hartley Act pulled official union tactics firmly into the regulatory grip of the managerial State. Union methods are legally restricted to collective bargaining and limited strikes. Strikes cannot legally be expanded to secondary or general strikes, and any strike can be—as many strikes have been—broken by the arbitrary fiat of the President of the United States. Obvious violations of the freedom of contract—such as the ban on union hiring halls and “closed shop” contracts—strip officially-recognized unions of effective tactics and sap their resources. The emphasis on collective bargaining and bureaucratic mediation favors centralized union bureaucracies over more decentralized, democratic forms of organization. Thus both the internal culture of the post-Wagner union establishment and the external controls of federal and state regulations have conspired to enrich a select class of professional unionists while hamstringing the labor movement as a whole and limiting progress for rank-and-file workers.

[53] “Vulgar libertarian apologists for capitalism use the term ‘free market’ in an equivocal sense; they seem to have trouble remembering, from one moment to the next, whether they’re defending actually existing capitalism or free market principles. So we get the standard boilerplate article in The Freeman [on sweatshop labor] arguing that the rich can’t get rich at the expense of the poor, because ‘that’s not how the free market works’—implicitly assuming that this is a free market. When prodded, they’ll grudgingly admit that the present system is not a free market, and that it includes a lot of state intervention on behalf of the rich. But as soon as they think they can get away with it, they go right back to defending the wealth of existing corporations on the basis of ‘free market principles’” (Carson 2004, 142).

[54] For an extensive discussion of the nature of the corporate State and the role of government patronage in the formation of actually existing capitalism, see especially part two of Carson 2004 and Kolko 1963.

[55] It is important to remember that the calculation problem, as variously formulated, has to do either with the lack of market pricing or with the dispersal of idiosyncratic knowledge, not essentially with the use of coercive means. Political coercion is one of the most effective ways to stifle negotiation and shove people with idiosyncratic knowledge out of the way. But it is not the only way; voluntary structures can block the flow of knowledge no less than coercive ones. Cf. Rothbard 1962, Chapter 10, Section F on the calculation problems that would be faced by One Big Cartel, even without government intervention.

[56] See Long 2005 for an economic analysis of the trade-offs involved in increasing the size of firms and the economic factors that would tend towards greater decentralization in a free market.

[57] Whether or not Southern secessionism was closely linked with slavery is – God help us all – still a matter of considerable controversy in libertarian intellectual circles. But see Hummel 1996 for a persuasive argument that while the Federal government’s motives in pursuing the Civil War had little to do with freeing slaves, the Confederate states’ motives for seceding were dominated by the desire to perpetuate and expand race slavery.

[58] The most dramatic historical example of this line of argument can be found in the work of Lysander Spooner, who penned No Treason (1867-1870) as a defense of the moral right of the Southern states to secede from the Union, but also published a “Plan for the Abolition of Slavery” (1858) which called on slaves and non-slaveholding whites to launch a guerrilla war against Southern slaveholders, with aid and comfort provided by Northern abolitionists. Thus in No Treason, Spooner stated that “The result – and a natural one – has been that we have had governments, State and national, devoted to nearly every grade and species of crime that governments have ever practised upon their victims; and these crimes have culminated in a war that has cost a million of lives; a war carried on, upon one side, for chattel slavery, and on the other for political slavery; upon neither for liberty, justice, or truth” (No. II, § X ¶ 2). Hummel 1996 offers an excellent historical defense of a similar view of the secession crisis and the Civil War.

[59] A project like this one cannot be undertaken without accumulating debts. My own are too numerous to give an accounting of them all; but in particular I would like to thank Laura Breitenbeck and Roderick Long for patience, inspiration, collaboration, encouragement, and detailed and very helpful comments.

Sad but true

Here's a screen shot of Lysander Spooner's public figure profile on Facebook. Under the Mini-Feed there's a line saying "Lysander Spooner has no recent activity."

Can anybody ever consent to the State?

Update 2009-01-08: Typos fixed.

These are some remarks on the State and the conceptual possibility of consent, which I originally prepared for my appearance at the Molinari Society’s Authors-Meet-Critics last week in Philadelphia, but which I opted not to read because of time constraints. Fortunately, blogs are not subject to the same constraints of time or topicality, so I have expanded a bit on what I originally prepared, and now I offer them to you, gentle reader.

In their remarks on Crispin Sartwell’s Against the State, both Christopher Morris and Jan Narveson object to Sartwell’s conclusion that existing states are conceptually incompatible with the very possibility of consent (40, emphasis added). Specifically, they object to the strength or the sweep of the incompatibility claim: Morris thinks that this is an exaggeration and an unnecessary one, and Narveson insists that such a strong claim of incompatibility cannot be taken literally. Each attempts to refute the incompatibility claim, at least as originally stated, by means of counterexamples. Presumably, if you can point to at least one case where individual consent to be ruled is actually secured by an existing state, then clearly (modal logic and all that) it must not be logically impossible for existing states to secure it. And each argues that Sartwell could have done just as well, for the purpose of undermining consensualist accounts of legitimacy, with a much weaker claim. Narveson goes so far as to attribute this weaker claim to Sartwell, insisting that Sartwell really must have meant to say, not that existing states operate in a way that logically precludes any of their subjects from consenting to their rule, but rather that they operate so as to preclude the unanimous consent of all their subjects — that is, that there must always be at least one dissenter in any given state, not that there never can be any non-dissenters.

What then are the counterexamples to be considered? Narveson mentions those who voted in a government election for the party currently in power. Morris, for his part, says that at least some people seem voluntarily to perform acts that seem to constitute consent, and they seem to do so with the requisite understandings. I’d be interested to know whether the performances Morris has in mind are performative utterances like the Pledge of Allegiance or citizenship oaths, where the utterer explicitly declares her support for a particular government, or whether he also means to include other kinds of acts, which have some other purpose but from which consent can reasonably be inferred. But whatever sorts of spontaneous or ritualized performances Morris or Narveson may have in mind, what puzzles me is that, while they indicate these cases as counterexamples to Sartwell’s strong claim — as presented on page 40 of Against the State — neither Morris nor Narveson seems to engage with the direct argument for which the strong claim is the conclusion — as presented on page 50 — in which Sartwell explicitly considers and rejects the claim that these sorts of individual performances could count as consenting to the State’s rule. Thus:

… consent is always compromised by force; the mere existence of effective force dedicated to some end constitutes coercion toward that end, whatever you may think or want. If I consent to abide by the law when that law is enforced by a huge body of men with guns and clubs, it is never clear, to say the least, whether my consent is genuine or not. … It will always be prudent for me, under such circumstances, to simulate consent, and there are no clear signs by which a simulation could be distinguished from a genuine consent in such a case. That I am enthusiastic in my acquiescence to your overwhelming capacity for violence—that I pledge my allegiance according to formula, sing patriotic songs and so on—does not entail that I am not merely acquiescing. … [T]he mere existence of an overwhelming force by which the laws will be enforced compromises conceptually the possibility of voluntarily acceding to them. Or put it this way: the power of government, constituted by hypothesis under contract, by which it preserves the liberties and properties of its citizens, is itself conceptually incompatible with the very possibility of their consent. (50-51)

That is, the standing threat of overwhelming force ensures that any individual performance is made under duress, ruling out the preconditions for any genuine consent. I’d be interested to hear what Narveson and Morris make of this argument for rejecting their purported counterexamples to the strong claim. Unless there is some response to it, then it seems like the attempt to use individual performances as evidence for the actual existence of (at least some) individual consent to the State, which is to say, as evidence against Sartwell’s strong incompatibility claim, is simply question-begging.

Now, I think it would be perfectly fair for Narveson and Morris to object that Sartwell’s argument, as stated, does need some tightening, and may also need some elaborating. But I think that once the tightening and the elaborating have been done, the argument does in fact provide a basis for a very strong version of Crispin’s strong incompatibility claim — and the strong version of that strong claim will be of general interest for anyone who intends to connect their notion of political right to respect for individual liberty, and their notion of liberty to respect for individual consent in the use of person or property.

Now, if someone goes through the motions of consenting while under a background threat of force against dissenters, for Narveson or Morris to be able to insist that it is possible for that to express genuine consent only if they deny at least one of the following principles:

  1. Any seeming expression of consent to a condition C, if given under a standing threat of force against refusers, is given under duress.

  2. Any seeming expression of consent to a condition C, if given under duress, cannot be treated as a genuine expression of consent to C.

  3. If you cannot do anything that could be treated as a genuine expression of consent to a condition C, then you do not count as having consented to C.

All three seem initially plausible, to me at least, but if Narveson or Morris accepts all three, then it quickly follows that he cannot count as having consented to any condition C when there is a background threat of force against those who refuse to consent to C. Since that’s how existing states roll, nobody could do anything that would count as having consented to the state — and that would remain the case even for those who say that they consent with all their heart out of an earnest feeling of duty and with a great deal of pride. If all three principles are accepted, then even if you want to give your consent to the State’s rule over you, you can’t do it, because the state’s unilateral imposition of the terms preempts your efforts to consent to the terms.

So, if Narveson or Morris wants to avoid that conclusion, he’ll have to pick one of the principles to reject, and the question is which one to pick.

Principle (1) looks like it’s not very far off of a definition of acting under duress (or performing the specific action of seemingly-expressing-consent under duress). I doubt that much of anyone will be inclined to reject that — or, if they are so inclined, it will probably be because they first rejected a principle very similar to principle (2) — basically, (2) modified so that under a standing threat of force against refusers substitutes for under duress — but are inclined to think that any case of genuine consent should (therefore) not be considered a case of action under duress. In which case you have a counterexample to (1) rather than to (2), as I’ve stated the principles. But if so, then the motivations for rejecting (1) will be similar enough to the motivations for rejecting (2) that my comments below should apply equally to either.

Principle (2) may look much more promising to someone who wants to defend the claim that people may be voluntarily consenting to state authority — even though they would have been forced to acquiesce even if they had tried to refuse. The idea would be something like this: Look, you’ve given us a perfectly good reason to think that there are at least some people who would seem to be consenting but aren’t actually consenting. Fine, but why think their situation affects those who sincerely do want to agree to the terms the State sets down? At most this seems like an epistemological problem — that we may have trouble finding out whether somebody consented or not just on the basis of their outward actions. It doesn’t make it logically impossible for them to have done so.

Some of the ways in which Sartwell tries to state his case might indeed incline you towards a worry like this — as when he argues that It will always be prudent for me, under such circumstances, to simulate consent, and there are no clear signs by which a simulation could be distinguished from a genuine consent in such a case. The mere fact that a second or third party couldn’t distinguish a simulation from genuine consent wouldn’t (just by itself) warrant the conclusion that there can be no such thing as genuine consent. But I think that there are two possible responses to this worry. First, if the worry is purely epistemic, it still poses a serious problem for any consensualist justification of the state — if it is the case, as I think it is, that it is illegitimate not only to use someone’s person or property without her consent, but also to use someone’s person or property when there is no possible way for you to find out whether she has consented or not. (Consider this an argument to the effect that the State cannot be legitimate because it has no reliable procedure for determining whether its rule over any given subject is in fact legitimate or illegitimate. Take that, Robert Nozick.) But, secondly, and more to the point, I think that there is a stronger interpretation of Sartwell’s argument, on which the worry is logical rather than epistemological, because the lack of clear signs of a distinction is not just a lack of diagnostic symptoms, but rather a lack of necessary criteria.

Think of it this way. The claim that a seeming expression of consent does not count, when given under duress, is usually justified by something like the following principle:

Principle of the Alternative: If Norton wants to place Twain’s person or property under a condition C, then Twain’s performing an action A expresses consent to C only if there is some alternative action B, which Twain could have performed, which would have counted as refusing consent to C.

I take this principle to be a necessary condition for a performance to meet the concept of expressing consent. An expression of consent is necessarily a choice among alternatives; if there is nothing that would even count as a refusal, then what we have is just not a matter of consent. Whatever Twain’s personal feelings about A or C may be, what he’s doing when he does A may be an expression of deference, or of obligation, or of some other similar sort of commitment. But whatever it is, it’s just not an expression of consent.

More strongly, and more importantly for the purposes of our argument, it is not enough that there just be something that would count as refusing consent. Consent is a property of transactions between two or more parties, and for you to have it, there must not only be something that would count as a refusal; your partner must also be willing to count that performance, whatever it is, as a refusal which she is bound to respect. An alternative must not only be available; there must be some reasonable expectation that the alternative would be practically effective.

Opt-Out Principle: If Norton wants to place Twain’s person or property under a condition C, then Twain’s performing an action A expresses consent to C only if there is some alternative action B, which Twain could have performed, which would have counted as refusing consent to C, and which Twain can reasonably expect Norton to accept as a decisive reason not to place Twain’s person or property under C.

Again, I take this principle to be a necessary condition for a performance to count as expressing consent; just as the lack of a possible refusal makes the issue one of obligation rather than consent, if Twain performs an expressive act without any expectation that there is some expression of refusal that Norton would consider himself bound to respect, then the issue is no longer one of consent, but rather of unilateral command. And again, it hardly matters what Twain’s personal feelings about the command may be. Maybe he’s into that kind of thing. But whatever he is doing, he is not succeeding at doing anything that would count as expressing consent. You can’t consent if you’re never asked, and if there really is nothing that Norton would count as a binding refusal, then Twain has never even been asked, in any meaningful way.

I think the Principle of the Alternative and the Opt-Out Principle, or something a lot like them, are central to Sartwell’s worry about the difficulty of telling a genuine willingness to accept the state’s terms apart from a willingness simulated only under duress. I also think that these principles, or something a lot like them, provide the only reasonable explanation for why, as a general thing, we should disregard a seeming expression of consent that was only given under duress, and would not have been given but for the threat. (It might seem important that such seeming expressions are not sincere reflections of the utterer’s inner state. But that by itself is not enough. I might freely give an insincere expression of consent — say I consent to let you use my car, but I secretly intend to call the cops on you and report it stolen. But then the expression, even though insincere, is still genuine consent; given my expression of consent to you, it would be false for me to claim that you had stolen my car from me, no matter what I may have whispered to myself in the dark recesses of my soul.) But if both principles, or something a lot like them, express necessary conditions for a performance to genuinely express consent, then it looks like Principle (2) follows without much delay. And it follows in its full logical force — the worry here, remember, has nothing to do with whether or not Norton knows that Twain is genuinely expressing consent; it has to do with whether or not necessary criteria have been met for Twain’s expressions to count as expressions of consent. If the state rigs the situation in such a way that there is nothing it would count as opting out, then it has also rigged the situation in such a way that there is nothing it could really count as opting in; opting just isn’t part of this game. Neither expressing consent nor expressing dissent are even options that are on the table; if the state gives non-negotiable, unilateral commands, merely being cheerfully responsive to those commands is not enough to count as consent in any meaningful sense. And if this is the case, then it ought to be clear that it immediately defeats any claim that, for example, voting, or paying taxes, or reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, or anything of the sort, could count as giving your consent to be ruled by the government that you vote for, or pay taxes to, or pledge your allegiance to. If not voting, not paying your taxes, not reciting the Pledge, or whatever, would exempt you from the terms that the United States imposes on you, then those who chose to do so anyway might well be counted as consenting to be ruled by the United States. But anarchist activism would also be an awful lot easier than it is, and the United States would not, in fact, even amount to a State — at least, not in any sense of the word that anarchists use when they proclaim all States to be illegitimate (because nonconsensual). In the real world, where government taxes and government prohibitions fall on the heads of the voters and the non-voters alike, there is, as Lysander Spooner argues, no way that an performance under such conditions can count as consent to government.

In truth, in the case of individuals, their actual voting is not to be taken as proof of consent, even for the time being. On the contrary, it is to be considered that, without his consent having ever been asked, a man finds himself environed by a government that he cannot resist; a government that forces him to pay money, render service, and forego the exercise of many of his natural rights, under peril of weighty punishments. He sees, too, that other men practise this tyranny over him by the use of the ballot. He sees further that, if he will but use the ballot himself, he has some chance of relieving himself from this tyranny of others, by subjecting them to his own. In short, be finds himself, without his consent, so situated that, if he use the ballot, he may become a master; if he does not use it, he must become a slave. And he has no other alternative than these two. In self-defence, he attempts the former. His case is analogous to that of a man who has been forced into battle, where he must either kill others, or be killed himself. Because, to save his own life in battle, a man attempts to take the lives of his opponents, it is not to be inferred that the battle is one of his own choosing. Neither in contests with the ballot – which is a mere substitute for a bullet – because, as his only chance of self-preservation, a man uses a ballot, is it to be inferred that the contest is one into which he voluntarily entered; that he voluntarily set up all his own natural rights, as a stake against those of others, to be lost or won by the mere power of numbers. On the contrary, it is to be considered that, in an exigency, into which he had been forced by others, and in which no other means of self-defence offered, he, as a matter of necessity, used the only one that was left to him.

Doubtless the most miserable of men, under the most oppressive government in the world, if allowed the ballot, would use it, if they could see any chance of thereby ameliorating their condition. But it would not therefore be a legitimate inference that the government itself, that crushes them, was one which they had voluntarily set up, or ever consented to.

Therefore a man’s voting under the Constitution of the United States, is not to be taken as evidence that he ever freely assented to the Constitution, even for the time being. Consequently we have no proof that any very large portion, even of the actual voters of the United States, ever really and voluntarily consented to the Constitution, even for the time being. Nor can we ever have such proof, until every man is left perfectly free to consent, or not, without thereby subjecting himself or his property to injury or trespass from others.

— Lysander Spooner (1867), No Treason no. 2, § II ¶¶ 12–14

Spooner, for his own reasons, couches his argument in epistemological terms — or, more specifically, in terms of legally cognizable proof. But, once again, the argument that he frames epistemically can be reframed in terms of the conceptual criteria for a public expression of consent by means of the Principle of the Alternative and the Opt-Out Principle.

I suspect, then, that someone who wants to defend the claim that it is possible to consent to the state’s authority — in spite of the background threat of coercion against anyone who attempts to refuse — will ultimately have to fall back on rejecting Principle (3). That is, in order to defend the claim the claim they are trying to defend, they will need to make some kind of distinction between the property of consenting as such, and the property of expressing consent. In fact I think it’s likely that this is the real core of Morris’s and Narveson’s intuitive sense that of course there must be some people who are consenting to existing states. It may seem like we just know that it’s possible to consent to the state, because we think we see it in people all around us, in their everyday practices and beliefs — whatever attitude the state may have towards them, their personal attitudes involve an acceptance of the state. We might have the same feelings ourselves, or even if we do not, we might imagine that we have them. We might even express this attitude of acceptance with a form of words like I want the State to rule me, or even I consent to the authority of the state. But if the discussion is about consent, and not merely about acceptance or desire, and if consent is supposed to have any kind of weight in ethical deliberation about the transactions between two or more agents, then I doubt that such a notion of private attitudes of consent — attitudes which might not only be unexpressed at the moment, but might not even be expressible in principle, under the prevailing circumstances — is likely to be coherent. That is, I doubt that private acceptance of the state can be understood as consent, at least in any sense that would preserve the connection between consent and political legitimacy, which is after all what inspired us to introduce the question of consent into the discussion of political theory in the first place.

If there is no effective possibility of refusal, then there is no possibility of publicly expressing consent, and if there is no possibility of publicly expressing consent, then there is no possibility of consenting. If existing states make a standing threat to force people to submit to their terms, even if they do not agree to those terms, then governments cut off any effective possibility of refusal, and thus nobody can do anything that would count as consenting to be ruled by an existing state — even if she wants to do so, and even if she sincerely says that she agrees to the terms. Since all existing states do make that standard threat, no existing state rules by consent over any individual subject. And if governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, then no government has any just powers at all. Even the most patriotic pledger or the most dutiful voter has not consented to be bound by the terms the state imposes, even if she tried to get herself bound by them; she is not bound in conscience to pay taxes, or to obey government prohibitions, or to obey the government’s requirements in any other way, for even one second longer than she wants to. And no existing state has either the duty or the right to enforce those terms on her.

ALL I need to know about the Revolution is what I heard in Vegas

ALLies,

As promised, here is (finally) the text (more or less) of my speech at the Libertarian Party of Clark County. There was a scheduling mix-up, so I got about half the time I expected in which to speak; parts that are struck out are parts that I omitted in the interest of time. I should note that, if you’re not familiar with public speaking, reading from a more or less completely prepared script like I did can be both a crutch and a handicap at the same time; if you’re nervous it provides a guaranteed route from where you are to the end of the line, but having it ready at hand also encourages nervous tics, including obtrusive glances down to the sheet, that can really detract from the reading. In my own case, I’m fairly familiar both with talking from notes and with reading prepared papers, but the written-out script was mainly the result of time pressures, and, since I didn’t have time to rehearse it, and also found out, too late to do anything about it, that I wouldn’t have a lectern to make my glancing at the sheet less obtrusive, I know my delivery suffered a bit because of it. The best thing to do in your local groups is, no doubt, to try to make sure you have enough time to meet beforehand and practice your talk. Anyway, on to the content:

I am here today to bring you two messages. So let me cut to the chase and deliver both of them right now. They are the point of this entire talk, and I can put them both in ten words or fewer. Here’s the first: Las Vegas will be free soil in our own lifetimes. And the second is: We are all going to make it happen. And when I say We all, I don’t just mean the people in this room. I don’t just mean the people in this political party, either. I don’t mean the people in my own organization, the Southern Nevada Alliance of the Libertarian Left. I mean all of us, everybody. The LP and Southern Nevada ALL and you and me, yes—but also our friends and our neighbors and our fellow workers. I believe that in my lifetime, all of us in Las Vegas will rise up and we will make ourselves free of the oppression and exploitation inflicted upon us by government laws, government regulation and regimentation, government cops, and government bureaucrats—local government, county government, state government, federal government, and transnational governing bodies like the UN, WTO, and IMF. We will become free because we have, individually and cooperatively, made ourselves ungovernable. We will do this with or without the cooperation of the rest of the world, and whether or not the political powers that be have been persuaded of the truth and virtue of the freedom philosophy; if the souls of politicians and political institutions can be cured, then that will make it so much the easier, but even if they cannot, we can and we will make it no longer worth their while – no longer even sustainable – for them to rule us against our will. We can and we will dump the bosses and the bureaucrats off our backs—politically, socially, economically—and we will stand upright, in control of our own destinies.

I’m saying these things today because I think they are important. I think they are important because they seem impossible, and yet they are true. It’s easy to doubt that Las Vegas can be free—really, totally free—in our own lifetimes. Government is big. Government is everywhere. Government consumes somewhere between one third and one half of every dollar that you make. Every dollar that you make and every dollar that you spend is itself part of the world’s largest and most powerful government monopoly—the government-centralized banking cartel and its fiat money monopoly. City government patrols every street. The federal government of the United States is the richest, most technologically advanced, and most militarily powerful organization in the history of the world. The two major parties, which thoroughly dominate the electoral process at every level, show no real signs of wanting to roll back government in any major area of policy, or even to contain it at its current levels; no matter whether a Demopublican or a Republicrat candidate wins, the party in power is more or less guaranteed to aggressively push government further and further into our lives. It’s easy to get dizzy just looking at the size and scope of government. It’s easy to lose hope entirely in the face of such an enemy. And it’s just as easy, and just as destructive, in the long run, to lose hope by deferring it, by concluding that freedom is only for our children or our grandchildren or our great-grandchildren, that it takes a long and slow process of chipping away at the edges of invasive government, in the hope that, after the next several four-year election cycles, we might begin to get a little freer, and we might be able to contain or even roll back government a little, leaving the rest of the task for future generations. I am here today to say that that’s not good enough. I am here to say that freedom is much closer than any of us think, if we fight for it, and if we know where to take that fight. And I am here today to ask you all to get into that fight by having the hope to believe in, and the courage to say some things that are both crazy and true.

Well, O.K., then. Now that I’ve said all that, let me back up a bit, so that I can give you an idea of where I’m coming from, and then come back around to the details of where I think we can go from here. My name is Charles Johnson. I’m here on behalf of a new radical libertarian project called the Southern Nevada Alliance of the Libertarian Left. I write for a weblog called the Rad Geek People’s Daily, at radgeek.com. I’ve been a libertarian writer, activist, and organizer – both inside and outside of the Libertarian Party, especially the Libertarian Party of Alabama – since about 2001. Since 2000, I’ve also been a writer, activist, and organizer for many groups and causes within the radical Left and the radical feminist movement. Depending on where you are coming from, that may or may not seem strange; it may even seem incoherent. I think that with the right understanding of both the Freedom Movement and of the radical Left – or, rather, the right understanding of the particular tendencies within the Freedom Movement, and within the radical Left, that I am working in – it won’t seem that way anymore. But I’ll come back to that in a bit.

First, I want to say a few words about Southern Nevada ALL. We are a new organization, a local chapter of the Alliance of the Libertarian Left, which also has active chapters in Kansas City, Richmond, Virginia, and a new chapter forming in the Chicago area. The locals are autonomous and work together as equals: there’s no big central ALL office that tells local chapters what to do, but we keep in touch with the locals in other towns and we share our experiences and our materials, which each local chapter can adapt to the conditions in its own community. We use the ALL name because our groups have certain principles and strategic priorities in common with each other. Let me try to break down what some of those are. The Alliance of the Libertarian Left believes in….

  1. Radicalism – we pull no punches, and we make no compromises, in our presentation of the freedom philosophy. We don’t shy away from emotional and controversial issues, either. We are anarchists, not limited-governmentalists; we are extremists, not moderates; and we’re not afraid to say so.

  2. Populism – we believe that libertarianism is for everybody, and the people who have the most to gain from, and the most to contribute to, the movement, are the people who are the most downtrodden, the most thoroughly oppressed and exploited, in our current social and political regime.

  3. Solidarity and social justice – we believe in many of the goals associated with Progressives or the statist Left today – anti-racism, anti-imperialism, gay liberation, feminism, environmental sustainability, radical labor solidarity, and many of the other commitments that are commonly grouped together under the heading of social justice. Unlike state Leftists, we believe that these goals can and should be achieved by free people in a free society, using free association and cultural activism to change existing social and material conditions, without getting government regulations or bureaucracies involved. We intend to achieve Lefist goals through libertarian means.

  4. Non-electoral social change – we are not affiliated with any political party or any candidate for political office. We do not try to achieve change by petitioning the politicians currently in power, or by trying to replace them with other, better politicians. There’s a place for that kind of activism, but lots of other organizations – including the Libertarian Party – are already working on it. If we tried to do it, we wouldn’t be very good at it, so what we specialize in are other means of social change: mass education, targeted persuasion, non-violent direct action, and the creation of alternative institutions that counter or bypass the State.

I’ll have more to say about all of this later. But for now, let me say a few things about what Southern Nevada ALL has done so far, and where we are going from here.

Right now we are a new organization, and we are in the process of getting our bearings, making contacts, and looking for allies. Southern Nevada ALL’s first public action was a bit of guerrilla education that we did on Tax Day, April 15th – by posting these flyers around town in Las Vegas, mainly on UNLV campus and in the surrounding neighborhoods. The action had two immediate goals. First, to get out a radical anti-tax message that would appeal to anti-authoritarians of all stripes, and also specifically to anti-war Leftists. Second, to get our name out and let likely new ALLies and contacts know that we were forming this new organization. I consider it to have been a smashing success – at least, insofar as it ended up almost tripling our membership (growing from the two founders, David Houser and myself, to five members after the flyering), and laid the groundwork for future actions. I’ll come back around to talk about those in a minute.

First, though, I want to say a few things about non-electoral methods for social change, and then about the Left.

I’m not about to deny that electoral politics – voting, party-building, running better candidates – has some role to play in making social change. I think it has played a very important role in the past, and that it can play a very important role in the future – both through efforts to destabilize or reorient the major parties, as with Ron Paul’s campaign within the Republican Party, and also through efforts to create alternatives to the two-party system and open up new spaces for libertarian ideas, as with the Libertarian Party. What I do want to stress today is that it’s important for us not to limit ourselves to electoral politics. There are all kinds of ways that social change happens, and electoral politics is only one of them. While it can be a very powerful method, it’s also a very difficult one, and a time consuming one, and a slow one. So while I encourage you all to do whatever you find it worth your while to do through electoral politics, I am here to stress the need to add other forms of activism to your toolbox. If we are going to become free in our own lifetimes – and I believe that we will – then relying on electoral politics alone will never be enough. After all, running candidates and voting can only effect a change once you have managed to convert 50%+1 of the electorate over to your position; there’s very little room for accomplishing small changes on the margin. It also imposes a very rigid and quite slow schedule on making social changes: you only have a shot at changing anything for one day every two to four years. And an elections-only strategy necessarily excludes large numbers of people – including especially the very people that are the most thoroughly oppressed by the current political regime, who have the most to gain from a fight for freedom – people like drug war prisoners, and illegal immigrants, who are legally excluded from voting at all. If we want to make lasting change within our lifetimes, we will need to adopt some other methods of social change – methods that don’t have to wait on the next election, methods that don’t have to wait on 50%+1, and methods that can be for everybody, with or without a permission slip from the State.

To give you an idea of what I mean, let me tell you a couple stories.

[Spokane Free Speech Fight, 1910]

I know this story more or less by heart, so I told it off the cuff instead of writing it out. If you haven’t heard it told before, my version was just a slightly shortened version of Utah Phillips’s version. —R.G.

There are a lot of ways of doing direct action. Here’s a recent one that I read about, from a group of middle-schoolers in Readington, NJ. [Pennies work-to-rule in Readington, NJ]

Another special kind of direct action that I want to mention, which is very important to the ALL and to many other libertarian Leftists, is the concept of counter-economics. Counter-economics is the underground practice of radical libertarian theory. Counter-economics means creating your own, unregulated institutions, independently of the State, in which you profit by ignoring or defying the institutionalized requirements imposed by the government and by the business establishment. Counter-economics builds alternative institutions through illegal black markets, and quasi-legal grey markets. And counter-economics is everywhere: it’s the unlicensed pharmacist slinging drugs to willing customers on the street corner. It’s the illegal immigrant dodging government border controls and then working under the table, without turning over the fruits of her labor to the IRS. It’s the waitress building up a nest egg from cash tips that she doesn’t report to the IRS. It’s e-gold and the Liberty Dollar and the Ithaca Hour producing durable currencies as an alternative to the Fed’s fiat money monopoly. It’s your cousin downloading free MP3s on his college network, in defiance of government-enforced copyright monopolies. It’s a grey market outfit like Food Not Bombs, where activists cover their own food costs and provide hot meals to homeless people by dumpster-diving surplus food from grocery stores (which is still fresh enough to eat, but no longer fresh enough to sell under existing government food regluations), cooking it, and serving the food for free in public spaces like parks.

It’s important to see that this kind of black market and grey market activity is itself a form of direct action, no less than filling the jails, and no less than a sit-in or a work-to-rule action. One of the ALL’s chief goals is to promote freedom through direct action, including through counter-economics, to encourage people who haven’t gone counter-economic yet to support the legitimacy and the importance of counter-economic businesses, and to encourage people who are already engaged in counter-economics to become self-conscious and organized counter-economists – that is, to see that what they are doing is not only personally profitable, but also politically valuable, and to see themselves as part of a larger movement to evade, undermine, and ultimately eliminate the invasiveness of the State.

One of the great advantages of counter-economics is that it’s one of the few forms of political activism in which people can strike a blow for freedom without having to become something that they are not, and which most people never will be – that is, die-hard, self-sacrificing activists who have a perfect grasp on libertarian philosophy and consistently make the right policy decisions. Counter-economics puts libertarianism into practice naturally; a practicing counter-economist is a practicing anti-statist as a matter of day-to-day business, whether or not she understands the whole philosophical theory that backs up her practice. And counter-economics also does something that almost no other form of political activism does: it produces direct, immediate profits for the person practicing it (because she makes money she wouldn’t otherwise be able to make, or keeps money she wouldn’t otherwise be able tokeep, or gets goods and services she wouldn’t otherwise be able to obtain). Part of the reason I said that I believe that we are all going to be part of Las Vegas becoming free soil is because I believe that if we take this fight not only to the electoral arena, but also to the streets, in the form of self-conscious direct action and counter-economics, we will have a tool at our disposal which will empower the most marginalized and least privileged people to join the struggle, and which will also make fighting for freedom the most selfish and most profitable thing for people – especially poor and oppressed people – to do.

Now, of course, there’s a downside to direct action, and especially to counter-economics: it can be dangerous. Nobody in ALL saying that you should get out there and start your own multimillion dollar heroin ring. (If you have started one, anyway, I’m not about to talk about it, and I’d rather you didn’t tell me about it. The first rule of a counter-economic business is, you don’t talk about a counter-economic business.) I’m the first to acknowledge this, and also to acknowledge that that means we shouldn’t put all our eggs in the counter-economic basket. I don’t think we should put all our eggs in any tactical basket. Counter-economics is important, and other forms of direct action are important, but so are a lot of other things. For the LP, that can mean electoral politics. For Southern Nevada ALL, it means mass education and targeted persuasion – through our flyers, through literature drops, through our website, through public speaking events like this one, and by creating alternative institutions (which I’ll come back to later) for distributing information and views through new channels. Neither education alone nor direct action alone will bring about victory; but when they are put together, each can become much more powerful than they were alone. Educating the people at large about libertarian ideas, and trying especially hard to persuade a handful of people who are especially open to radical politics, can make direct action much more powerful by creating the above-ground and underground networks of supporters that direct action needs to be successful. On the other hand, putting libertarian ideas into practice through direct action also reinforces education and persuasion, and makes them much more powerful than they would be on their own: people are much more likely to get involved, and to stay involved, in a project that leads to concrete action and real results. Libertarian talk accomplishes little if libertarianism remains nothing more than a talk shop; but talk can accomplish a hell of a lot when talk pulls people towards public and private action, and when public and private action get more people talking.

Now, some words about the Left. From the mid-20th century onward, movement libertarians have mostly conceived of themselves as the enemies of the Left (and vice versa), and the radical Left especially. Many libertarians came directly out of Right-wing or conservative movements (such as Young Americans for Freedom, the Republican Party, or the Right-wing talk radio scene). Libertarians mixed fairly freely with, and often worked with, small-government conservatives, and, even when they criticized conservative forms of government intervention (especially socially conservative policies, such as the Drug War or anti-abortion laws), they generally reserved their harshest words and most of their political activism for Left-liberal politicians, for redistributionist government social programs such as welfare and food stamps, and for social justice organizations like the anti-sweatshop movement and labor unions.

Well, to be clear, I for one have no problem attacking Left-liberal politicians, or government welfare programs. I oppose all efforts to expand the scope and power of government, and all forms of government-directed regimentation of trade or redistribution of wealth. But it is important to realize that criticizing the political means that many Leftist reformers have adopted over the past century doesn’t necessarily involve criticizing the ends that they adopted. And it is just as important to remember that the relationship between libertarians and the Left has not always been so chilly on either side. If we distinguish radical Leftists – think the Industrial Workers of the World, or Students for a Democratic Society, or the Black Panthers, or Noam Chomsky – from establishment liberals – think Albert Shanker or Teddy Kennedy or the AFL-CIO – then we’ll find that, while the establishment liberals have always been rock-ribbed defenders of the State, the radical Leftists – especially the radicals of the late 19th century, early 20th century, and, for a few years, the New Left of the late 1960s and early 1970s – have been some of the fiercest critics of the welfare-warfare State, as opponents of imperialism and COINTELPRO domestic surveillance, and also as proponents of people-powered, grassroots projects that provided mutual aid directly to people in the community, without any government welfare bureauracy. (Teddy Kennedy pushed for government welfare and healthcare. The Panthers argued that black people should forget about the government bureaucracy, and served voluntarily-funded free breakfasts in the ghetto instead—while they derided government welfare as a means of alienating poor blacks from their own community and keeping them dependent on the white man’s government.)

Similarly, there was a time when libertarians saw themselves not as the enemies of the Left, but as the most radical and consistent part of the Left. Nineteenth century libertarians such as Lysander Spooner and Stephen Pearl Andrews came out of the radical wing of the Abolitionist movement, and, after the Civil War, allied themselves with other culturally and politically radical movements against political and social privilege – including the labor movement, the anti-racist movement, the freethought movement, and First Wave feminism. The individualist anarchist Benjamin Tucker, whose magazine Liberty was one of the most influential libertarian publications in America from the 1880s through the first decade of the 20th century, described his position as Absolute Free Trade; … laissez faire the universal rule, but he and his circle also routinely identified themselves as socialists – not because they were setting themselves against the ideal of the free market, but rather because they were setting themselves against actually existing big business. They argued that a handful of men exercised control over finance, capital, and (thus) the daily lives of ordinary workers, not because of free market processes, but rather because of plutocratic government economic regimentation and government-granted monopolies – especially the Big Four monopolies of government centralization and regulation of banking for the benefit of finance capital, government protectionist tariffs for the benefit of industrial fat cats, government-granted monopolies on the use of ideas through patents and copyrights, and government seizure of control over wild and unused land. The Tuckerite individualists saw the invasive powers of the State as both the root of, and the reason for, the dominance of Big Business and entrenched capitalists over smaller competitors, workers, and cooperative shops. And they suggested that the Freedom Movement should strike at the root of the problem by organizing workers into countervailing organizations such as boycott leagues and labor unions to expose, challenge, resist, and ultimately simply to bypass the economic regulations that the State and the bosses were conspiring to impose on them by force. In the early 20th century, American individualists like Dyer Lum and immigrant anarchists like Emma Goldman fought for much the same vision, and their influence produced one of the largest and most influential labor unions of the early 20th century – the Industrial Workers of the World, which viewed government planners and bureaucrats as the tools of the bosses and the enemies of workers, and who urged workers to look not to the government, but to themselves, through the creative use of free association, agitation, direct action in the workplace, voluntary strikes, union solidarity, and voluntary mutual aid between workers, which would bypass the State, and create alternative, non-coercive institutions like union hiring halls and workers’ co-ops, which would build a new society within the shell of the old.

If the labor movement is statist today, it is only because it is now what State regulation and patronage have made it. The I.W.W. was targeted for massive government repression during the 1910s and 1920s, most notoriously in the Wilson administration’s World War I political prosecutions and the later Palmer raids, in which Wilson’s goon squad rounded up, jailed, and deported thousands of I.W.W. unionists and other anarchists, solely on the basis of their political beliefs. In the 1930s, a conservative, pro-government wing of the labor movement collaborated with the Progressive business class and the New Deal pro-government liberals to create the modern National Labor Relations Board system, in which centralized, establishmentarian unions like the AFL-CIO have been granted government privileges in organizing and negotiating, in return for submitting to extensive government regulations on the methods and goals that they can adopt. These new laws served as both a subsidy for conservative unionism as against radical competitors like the I.W.W., and also as a form of insurance that the subsidized labor unions would not do anything that fundamentally challenged the fundamental principles on which the state-corporate system and the interventionist political regime were founded.

The reality is that, through government regulation of the labor movement, export subsidies, the Big Four monopolies, government support for regulations that benefit entrenched market players, and through corporate welfare (whether in the form of direct monetary pay-offs, or in the form of land seized, Kelo-style, through eminent domain), big corporations like General Motors have benefited at least as much from government patronage as big unions like the UAW. Yet libertarian criticism of the magntes of state capitalism is hardly expanded into criticism of all businesses as such; while many 20th century libertarians have written as if the labor movement did not exist before the passage of the Wagner Act in 1935, and as if the faults of existing conservative unions are a sort of original sin for which all labor unions ought to b condemned. This difference in treatment is no doubt closely connected with the emphasis many 20th-century libertarians placed on defending the free market against the attacks of Communists and other state socialists. While they were right to argue that existing modes of production are distorted by government intervention, should not be even further distorted by increasing government regimentation, this insight was often perverted into the confused belief that existing business practices – the way that Wal-Mart does business, say, or the way that Nike treats its workers in third-world sweatshops – are themselves the natural outcome of an undistorted market. But these practices did not emerge from a free market in the first place; they emerged from a market already heavily distorted by government intervention. The answer, then, is clearly less government, not more; but there is also good reason for libertarians to condemn the economic distortions that already shape the state-capitalist labor market, and to promote anti-statist models of labor organizing as an essential part of the libertarian defense of free markets.

It’s for precisely these reasons that those of us in the ALL support wildcat unions and state-free forms of voluntary mutual aid, and look back to the history of those radical Leftist efforts that organized the oppressed and made use of people-power to challenge, resist, or simply bypass the State – such as the I.W.W.’s free speech fights. Or the nonviolent civil disobedience campaigns against British imperialism in India and against government Jim Crow laws in the Southern United States. Or the Jane network in Chicago, in which radical feminists learned how to perform simple first-timester abortions, and provided safe, affordable illegal abortions to hundreds of women in Chicago years before Roe v. Wade. Or the Black Panther Party’s efforts to replace white-controlled government policing and government welfare in black neighborhoods with community-based, non-governmental mutal aid and self-defense. And so on.

So, with these tools in hand and with these examples in mind, what can we do?

As I mentioned, Southern Nevada ALL is a new organization, and what we have done so far has focused on getting our name and our basic message out, on networking and making contacts, and on preparing a base for future activism. Our choice of present and future actions has been guided by a particular understanding of the situation in Las Vegas, and of the place where we can best fit ourselves into the existing activist scene. Southern Nevada ALL can act as a partner for, and as a sort of interface between, three different groups of activists within the Las Vegas area, each of whom we have some significant differences with, but also many overlapping interests: first, voting libertarians such as y’all in the Libertarian Party, and the movement that has grown out of the Ron Paul MeetUps; second, other non-electoral, anti-statist activists, especially Black Flag anarchist groups and projects; third, Leftist social justice groups working on issues such as immigration, civil liberties, police brutality, abortion rights, or the decriminalization of sex work.

Our role and the issues we have chosen come from our analysis of the particular situation here in Las Vegas. There’s clearly a tremendous thirst for anti-war, radical libertarian ideas in Las Vegas – as demonstrated by the groundswell of support for Ron Paul this past year, in direct opposition to the old guard of the state Republican Party. And also as demonstrated, in a different way, by the massive turn-out for immigrant freedom marches two years ago, on May 1, 2006. But this interest has not yet been converted into effective action, and there is a danger that, when election season ends five months from now, and the excitement of campaigning fizzles, a lot of that interest and that organizational energy may dissipate back into the background. We believe that at this point it is vital to reach out to energized, creative activists, and give them a channel for their enthusiasm and their activism that doesn’t require them to wait four more years before they see any action. Now is the perfect time to advance non-electoral methods of social change, and the building of alternative institutions that don’t revolve around multiyear election cycles, in order to keep the push for freedom going beyond the end of the election season.

And here in Las Vegas, the peculiar issues that we face have informed our decision of what sorts of groups to work with and what sort of issues to stress most in our activism. We have chosen to focus most closely on issues that intimately affect the lives of ordinary people in Las Vegas – such as police brutality (especially relevant, in light of the heavy police presence in Las Vegas and the recent string of brutality complaints lodged against the Henderson police), freedom from government border restrictions (especially relevant in a town with as large an immigrant population as Las Vegas, and where so many turned out for immigrant freedom marches only two years ago), and the collusion between politically-connected real estate developers and government interventions such as eminent domain and politically-driven development schemes (especially relevant in a town so thoroughly dominated by the Convention Board and other private-public partnerships, not to mention a town which has been hit so hard by the collapse of a government-driven real estate development bubble).

With that in mind, since our Tax Day flyering on April 15th, Southern Nevada ALL has also:

  1. Done literature drops of left-libertarian pamphlets around town, getting our message out on labor solidarity, freedom of immigration, voluntary mutual aid, how government creates and entrenches urban poverty, and so on, using these pamphlets – from William Gillis’s excellent Market Anarchy zine series, and a Vegas Anarchy series of our own;

  2. Done some low-level networking and outreach events with this chapter of the Libertarian Party, the United Coalition for Im/migrant Rights, and local feminist and gay liberation organizations;

  3. Started holding informal dinner meetings of ALL members and sympathizers, for networking, talking shop, and launching new projects. (The next one is planned for June 18th; if you’re interested, I’ll hook you up with the details later tonight.)

  4. Participated in the May Day immigrant rights rally at the federal court house in Las Vegas, where we called for the decriminalization of all peaceful immigrants.

  5. Worked together with other organizations to help build the infrastructure for anti-statist and social justice activism in Las Vegas – by creating a listserv for all libertarians in the Las Vegas area, and by helping to organize, and marching in, the United Coalition for Im/migrant Rights’s March for the DREAM on May 23rd.

We are just getting started. Our plans for projects in the immediate future include:

  1. We will distribute literature more widely, both through contacts with other anti-statist and social justice groups (like the LP and UCIR), and also through literature drops in stores and public spaces.

  2. We are planning a second, wider flyering event, focused on police brutality. (This will be coordinated with distributing pamphlets on police brutality, connecting it with the legal privileges involved in government policing, the militarization of police, and the effects of the racist War on Drugs.)

  3. Over the longer term, we intend to use Southern Nevada ALL as a spring-board for creating alternative institutions that will help us more effectively push for freedom, and help create a more vibrant activist community within Las Vegas. In particular, we plan to help re-organize a couple of projects which have mostly lapsed over the past few years – a Las Vegas Independent Media Center, which will provide an open, grassroots publishing forum for anti-state and social justice activists in the Las Vegas area, and which will create new channels for information and analysis outside of the mainstream local media; and also revitalizing the Las Vegas chapter of Food Not Bombs, which provides a grey market, counter-economic form of mutual aid outside of the State welfare bureaucracy and the corporate food market. As Food Not Bombs becomes more stable and sustainable, we plan to regroup and begin to talk about other grassroots mutual aid projects, in order to take stock of what’s most needed in the community, and what sorts of projects present the most transformational opportunities.

Each of our plans and projects is a fairly small undertaking, especially when you compare it to the size of the problems that we face. But I am confident that these small pieces, loosely joined together, can serve as the building blocks for something much larger. Something which I believe Southern Nevada ALL will be an important part of, but in which we all will have a role to play, and in which our power standing shoulder to shoulder will be much greater than the power any of us have separately. Electoral politics can pressure the powers that be and soften up their will to strike back at us. Education can create public support for freedom and make it dangerous or disastrous for government to try to strike back. Direct action, combined with education, and when carried out through a large and vibrant network of people-powered Leftist and anti-statist organizations, can and will make us ungovernable – without depending on petitioning or begging, and without depending on the good will of the powerful. I believe that it can be in our hands sooner than any of us realize, if we make full use of non-electoral, radical, populist methods to create alternatives to the State, to bring everyone into the struggle, and to take direct action against government oppression. That’s a fight we can begin right now, by reaching out to our friends and neighbors and our activist comrades. We don’t need to wait until the next convention or the next election. We don’t need to wait for sympathetic politicians. We can take the power into our own hands. And when we do, we will become free.

Thank you for your time, and your very gracious offer of a forum in which to speak. I’ll be glad to take any questions you may have and to talk some more about anything that you’d like to hear more about.

All power to the people!

As far as success goes, the discussion following the talk was lively and interesting. We got a certain number of folks staring at me like I was from Mars, which I expected, but also a fair amount of interest and sympathy, and we made a couple new contacts who may be good prospects for ALLies or fellow travelers. I hardly convinced the entire LP of Clark County to join the Revolution, but I hardly expected to, and I’d call the whole affair a reasonable success, given my goals for the talk. As far as lessons for the future go, the main ones that I’m keeping in mind for myself, and which you may want to keep in mind if you’re going to give a similar talk, are the following:

  1. The most interested people will always seek you out after the talk, but if you want to get a little something into everybody’s hands — e.g. pamphlets, contact sign-up sheets, handbills, etc. — don’t count on people to come up to your table for anything. Remember to hand it around at the start, if you possibly can.

  2. Because of time pressures, some sections of the talk drew pretty heavily from material that I had already written elsewhere for print publication. Historical references are important but I intend to make the talk for future events somewhat less bookish, somewhat more attuned to my speaking style, and somewhat more present-oriented.

  3. Go to some meetings beforehand so that you can scope out the audience and the space. If you make an appointment at one meeting, to give the talk at a later meeting, and there’s a substantial time period between the meeting where you made the appointment and the meeting where you’ll speak, make sure that you touch base (on whatever pretext; information, double-checking, follow-up, whatever) with the people who will be in charge at the meeting where you give your talk. I went to LP meetings beforehand but neglected to do the follow-up contacts I should have done; as a result there was some unclarity about who they were expecting to give the talk, and I wasn’t confident enough from a previous paper trail to speak up. Touching base more often would have resulted in having more time for the talk. (On the good side, having attended previous meetings gave me a much better sense for who I was pitching to and how to pitch it.)

  4. Keep your audience well in mind. This talk is pretty directly calculated for voting libertarians, like LP members or Pauliticos. If you want to talk to social justice groups, antiwar groups, lefties, and so on, obviously you will want to cover much of the same ground, but probably from a different angle of approach.

  5. Remember that, especially for a new radical effort like ALL, for any large group you are really looking for only a handful, maybe only one or two, new contacts in a much larger audience. Make sure that you have a gaff for anybody who bites — contact sheets, handbills, literature, and especially a well-defined upcoming event (like the dinner meeting, or even better an action that you’re planning) — to pull in likely new ALLies. But don’t worry if many in the audience give you the blank stare. You’re not there for them, except to give them some notional idea of your existence. You’re there for mass education and targeted persuasion, and the one or three or five potential ALLies or fellow travelers in the audience are your target.

Anyway, as I said, I consider the talk to have been a reasonable success and a good start. I hope that we can continue giving talks like this to other local groups in the future.

Other ALLies who are thinking about hitting up local groups for similar talks should feel free to appropriate, repurpose, and re-use the material in this talk.

Have y’ALL given any talks for your local chapter of ALL, or made any plans to give talks in the future? Let me know in comments. I’ll be glad to discuss any questions you might have about how my talk went, and to use the blog to talk up any talks that you have given or will be giving in the future.