Posts tagged Minarchism

Liberty, Equality, Solidarity: Toward a Dialectical Anarchism

Here’s what I got in the mail Monday afternoon. It took a week longer to reach me than it did to reach Roderick; I don’t know whether that’s one of the perks of being an editor rather than a mere contributor like me, or simply because I’m way out west and he’s in Alabama.

A hardbound copy of Anarchism/Minarchism: Is a Government Part of a Free Country? Edited by Roderick T. Long and Tibor R. Machan. Published by Ashgate Press (pictured here).

Liberty, Equality, Solidarity: Toward a Dialectical Anarchism

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 theory3—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 to 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. . . .

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 nineteenth and early twentieth-century socialist movement known as individualist anarchism, whose members included Benjamin Tucker, Victor Yarros, and Voltairine de Cleyre. It also includes the views of twentieth and twenty-first-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.

2. See Chris Matthew Sciabarra (2000), Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism. See also Sciabarra 1995a and 1995b.

3. Libertarianism as discussed in this essay is a theory of political justice, not as 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 twentieth-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 twentieth-century libertarian movement, and the relationship between liberty and organized labor, are one of the topics I will discuss below.

— Liberty, Equality, Solidarity: Toward a Dialectical Anarchism in Roderick T. Long and Tibor Machan (eds.), Anarchism/Minarchism: Is a Government Part of a Free Country. Ashgate Press, ISBN 978-0-7546-6066-8. 155–157.

The good news, for those whose interest is piqued and who would like to read the whole thing, is that the book is now available for pre-ordering and will be shipped somewhere around the end of the month. The bad news is that it’s about $80.00 for the hardcover edition, which is, for the time being, the only edition there is. (If you’re interested in reading the essay but are unlikely to have the bread to buy the book anytime soon, contact me privately.) In any case, for those who do get a chance to read the essay, I’d be glad to hear what you think, or any questions you may have, in the comments section at this post.

I mention this in the essay, but I’d like to repeat it here while I have the chance: the debts I accumulated in the process of writing this essay, and the earlier work on which it drew, are too numerous to give an accounting of them all, but I would especially like to thank my companion Laura and my teacher Roderick. The essay would have been much the poorer, or simply nonexistent, without their patience, inspiration, collaboration, encouragement, and detailed and very helpful comments

Meanwhile, in Minarchistan…

Steven Rhett gets pinched by the border cops at San Ysidro while he’s trying to peaceably move some marijuana across an imaginary line for some willing customers in the United States. Dale Franks, a California limited-governmentalist blogger who opposes drug prohibition, gets to sit in as Juror #1. If Dale Franks doesn’t vote to convict, the jury will hang and Steven Rhett will be able to go on living his life. After a short chat about the facts of the case, Dale Franks does his civic duty by voting to convict Steven Rhett on all charges, because that’s what The Law says. Back at QandO, Dale Franks blogs about his interesting experience. Meanwhile, Steven Rhett will be having an interesting experience in federal prison for the next ten years of his life.

Down in the comments, several anarchists ask Franks how he justifies directly collaborating in ruining a harmless man and robbing him of ten years of his life, when Franks himself doesn’t believe that anything Rhett did should be treated as a crime. Franks answers their objections decisively by getting into an argument with another limited governmentalist over whether or not the Constitution says it’s O.K., and what the word regulate meant in the 1780s.

If this is how the trains run around here, I’ll pass. I’m not interested in Dale Franks’s kind of railroading.

In which I fail to be reassured

The other day, I posted some remarks on why the Freedom Train metaphor bugs me, and why I think that market anarchists should generally think about aligning themselves with, you know, anarchist organizations, rather than minarchist efforts like the Libertarian Party and Chairman Ron’s Great Libertarian Electoral Revolution. Brian Doherty kindly took notice of my post over at Hit and Run. Like most posts at Hit and Run, it provoked a lot of comments, mostly from the usual suspects, and mostly not going much of anywhere productive. (Several minarchist commenters apparently didn’t bother to read the post, as they would rather spend their time rehashing the minarchist-anarchist debate from the get-go. Did you know that anarchy might work on the small scale, but will never work in a big, industrialized society? Or that anarchy will never work in practice because people will have to recreate the State to keep the Mafia from running everything? Man, I never heard that stuff before. Sign me up for some of that limited government!)

However, there are a few that are worth some remark.

NoStar offers the following encouraging thought on anarchist-minarchist unity:

How about we both fight and defeat them before we then turn and fight each other.

Think of Mao’s communists and Chang Kai-Chek’s nationalists combining to fight the Japanese.

Once the common foe is gone, we can nitpick the details.

— NoStar, 25 January 2008, 8:35pm

Call me a nattering nabob of negativism, but somehow I fail to be entirely reassured by the thought of being Chiang Kai-shek to the minarchists’ Mao Zedong. Or, for that matter, vice versa.

Moderate or pragmatist limited government libertarian Nick has this to say:

The way to effect change is to build a coalition of people who are dedicated to the change you want to make and then work to convince the normal people in the middle. Ron Paul is a great example of getting a coalition together, altho his campaign could use some work in convincing moderates to his side.

Well then.

In the interest of diplomacy, I will just kindly suggest that if Ron Paul’s triumphant single-digit, third-to-fourth place primary campaign is your idea of a great example of getting a coalition together and making change through the power of numbers, I will be holding out for a better proposal.

Meanwhile, limited governmentalists are just full of suggestions for how anarchists can help the cause of anarchy by … not talking about anarchy, and spending their time and energy on building up limited-government organizations instead. Apparently wanting to work on promoting your own cause, rather than other causes with fundamentally different ideas about ultimate goals, is a sign of a self-destructive fetish for purity. Of course, the fact that this going-along-to-get-along in the name of political realism only seems to go in one direction — I don’t hear any minarchists talking about how they plan to swallow their love of small governments in order to sign up for going anarchist efforts, like, say, CopWatch — might lead one to be just a little suspicious of the motives behind the appeal. But, anyway.

Brandybuck, for example, is not an anarchist. But he’s sure that if he were an anarchist, he’d be perfectly happy to spend his time working on achieving minarchy rather than anarchy. He asks:

He is unwilling to compromise any of his political points. But such an unwavering demand for pure anarchy is going to net him only misery. Is this a man who would reject a 50% tax cut because it would leave the remaining 50% of taxes in place? I think it might be.

— Brandybuck, 25 January 25 2008, 9:38pm

Brandybuck’s got another think coming.

I would quite happily take a 50% tax cut, if I could get it; and I would consider a 50% reduction in Leviathan’s pirated wealth to be a massive step in the right direction. I would much rather that the whole thing were done away with, but in the meantime, I will take what I can get.

But what I would not do is waste my time trying to build up a think tank or political party that are devoted to the goal of cutting taxes by 50% and no further. That’s hardly the only way in the world to make concrete progress towards cutting taxes by 50%, and if you think that it is, you need to think harder about how social change, or even basic negotiations, actually work in the real world. (As for negotiations, if you start out asking for what you actually want, rather than what you think you can get, you’ll often end up getting less than you wanted in the end. But you’ll do a damn sight better than if you start out asking for what you think you can get, and then bargain down from there. As for social change, there are a hell of a lot more movements that have made substantial social changes than there are political parties or party caucuses. If you think that the only way to get things done is to jump into a political party, then your lack of creativity is a problem for you, not a problem for me.)

Brandybuck is also incensed that I would claim that limited government libertarians actually do believe in government:

Personally, I have no desire to join any movement whose members [minarchists] will turn around and shoot me in the end.

This is a vile mischaracterization of minarchists. Minarchists are not statists. They are anti-statists. What makes them different from anarchists is the pragmatic realization that anarchy is not viable. If a state is inevitable, then let’s see to it that it will be as small and as unobtrusive as possible.

This is, to be blunt, complete nonsense. If minarchists believe in limited government, then they believe in the right to make anarchistic arrangements not viable by prohibiting at least some individual people from seceding or otherwise withdraw their allegiance from the minimal state in favor of competing defense associations, or in favor of individual self-defense. If Brandybuck believes that I have the right to tell his limited government to go to limited hell, and to withdraw entirely from it to make my own arrangements, then his imagined minimal state is really not a sovereign state at all, but rather one voluntary defense association amongst many, and Brandybuck is no minarchist, but rather an anarchist. (In which case, welcome, comrade!) But if he does believe that a limited government has some right to make me use or pay for its services, even if I would prefer to withdraw from it and make arrangements of my own, then, like any other government program, this one is going to take the use of force or the threat of force by limited government cops. In which case my characterization of the minarchist political platform as including a plank on shooting anarchists, whether vile or not, is an accurate one. There is no third option. (Of course, minarchists accept a right of free speech, meaning that they will not shoot anarchists who just talk about anarchy. But in order to maintain a minimal state, they have to be ready to shoot anarchists who actually attempt to do something about it. And I care about the latter at least as much, if not more, than I care about the former.)

A bunch of people seem to have misinterpreted my argument as an argument for not doing anything, or for anarchists never to work together with minarchists on issues of common concern. Thus, for example:

Great. The metaphor’s nonsensical. Let’s stop working together against the great breadth of government power.

— Vent, 25 January 2008 7:43pm

Of course, if I had made an argument to the effect that working together with limited statists was always and everywhere destructive to the cause of freedom, then replying to the argument this way would be about as sensible as saying Great. Let’s stop trying to put out this fire by pouring gasoline on it. Well, yeah, that’s what you should do. If working together requires you to make trade-offs that actively impede the goals you’re supposedly working for, then you should stop trying to work together. The primary goal of libertarianism ought to be freedom, not maximizing the number of self-identified libertarians working together. The two are not the same, and if latter interferes with the former, then the former is always more important.

That said, that’s not the argument that I made. I’m not proposing that anarchists sit around and do nothing; I am proposing that they choose different means in order to get things done. Nor am I proposing that anarchists never work together with minarchists on anything. I’m willing to work with all kinds of people. I am proposing that we reconsider the scope of the cooperation, and the terms on which we do the work. As I said in the original post:

I would certainly agree that market anarchists should be willing to work together with coalition partners on particular issues of concern — the drug war, corporate welfare, the war on Iraq, etc. — whether those coalition partners are minarchists, or state Leftists, or whatever else. But who you’ll work with in issue-based coalitions is a different question from whose movement you’ll participate in, or what formations you’ll make the primary venue for your broader organizing and activism.

Here, as elsewhere, I’d argue that there’s a lot to be said for making things with small pieces loosely joined. There are plenty of times when it makes sense for anarchists to work together with statists of various stripes, as part of a common front for a common cause. But when we do, I’d suggest that the cooperation should be limited to fighting to win on the issue at hand — not spending years building up multi-purpose, long-term institutions or political parties whose goals have nothing in particular to do with anarchism. And I’d suggest that when we work in coalition, we do so through organizations of our own, on our own terms, and speaking for ourselves, not through centralized, non-anarchist smaller-government organizations that require us to spend our time talking about everything but, y’know, anarchy, in order to participate.

Probably the most common critical reply, though, is a claim that anarchists should work to build up minarchist parties because (1) in the current political climate, the practical differences between anarchistic and minarchistic politics are triflingly small (minarchists want to get rid of about 99% of existing government; anarchists want to get rid of the remaining 1% too); (2) where there are differences in ultimate goals, in the current political climate, the stuff that only the anarchists want to get rid of can’t realistically be gotten rid of, whereas some of the stuff that both anarchists and minarchists want to get rid of can realistically be gotten rid of (the war on drugs, or marginal tax rates, or whatever); and (3) once we have gotten rid of the 99% of stuff that anarchists and minarchists agree on, whenever that happens, then getting rid of that last 1% will be much easier for anarchists to pull off than it would be to get rid of that stuff now.

Thus Zeph, in comments here:

A minarchist system would have minimal ability to block the tracks, even if it had an interest in so doing.

Sisyphus old lad, would you rather push a pebble or a planet up a hill?

And Brandybuck, who, while a minarchist, is ever helpful to inquisitive anarchists:

I also suspect that it would be much easier to achieve true anarchy if you start from a minarchist state than from an maxarchist state.

On the train anarchist kerem tibuk:

Besides when the time comes when a minarchist government agresses against an individual it is much easier for that individual to fight back since the state would be much less powerless and the individual much more powerfull.


Ummm, when we get to a government that is about 1% the size it is now, this will become a relevant question. Not exactly holding my breath over that happening. Until we effing reverse the growth of government, the 0%ers and the 0.01%ers and the 1%ers and the 50%ers and even the 99%ers should all be pretty solid allies.

But accepting this argument would depend on my accepting a number of premises whose evidence is weak at best, or which are definitely wrong.

I would, for example, have to accept that a smaller, more limited government would have a harder time suppressing anarchistic activity than a larger, less limited government would. It might seem like this is obvious: bigger governments have more money, more hired thugs, more surveillance spooks, and more tyrannical laws that they can exercise in order to suppress anarchists than smaller governments do. But, on the other hand, bigger governments also have much more to do than smaller governments do. Under the present system, government cops fritter away time, attention, and energy trying to enforce all kinds of asinine laws. Under a minarchy, the government police forces would still exist, but they would have basically nothing to do with their time other than (1) dealing with small-time property crime, and (2) suppressing anarchistic activity. I think there’s very little guarantee that it would be easier to establish and sustain institutions that counter certain kinds of state power when the state is lean and mean, than there is now when it’s large, bloated, and corrupt.

In a similar vein, I would have to accept that the most likely way to significantly reduce the scope and power of government is to spend the next several decades working from within the state system in order to prune away this or that invasive policy — drug laws, abortion laws, immigration laws, the war in Iraq, especially stupid provisions of copyright law, egregiously high taxes, the most outrageous parts of immigration law, or whatever — and then only to go after the supporting pillars of state power — government policing and prisons, government courts, government military, government border control, the existence of even minimal taxation, etc. — once all the policy issues have been cleared out of the way. That may seem obvious, but actually it’s a substantial claim in need of defense, and I have not yet been given any reason to believe that this is true.

Of course, it’s true that if you have already committed yourself to making change through the vehicle of electoral politics, then partial reform on the particular policy issues is going to be much closer to being within your grasp than, say, abolishing government policing in favor of voluntary defense associations. But that’s only if you’ve committed yourself to electoral politics already; it certainly can’t be invoked as an argument for jumping into the Libertarian Party without assuming part of what it needs to prove. In point of fact, if options other than electoral politics are allowed onto the table, then it might very well be the case that exactly the opposite course would be more effective: if you can establish effective means for individual people, or better yet large groups of people, to evade or bypass government enforcement and government taxation, then that might very well provide a much more effective route to getting rid of particular bad policies than getting rid of particular bad policies provides to getting rid of the government enforcement and government taxation.

To take one example, consider immigration. If the government has a tyrannical immigration law in place (and, just to be clear, when I say tyrannical, I mean any immigration law at all), then there are two ways you could go about trying to get rid the tyranny. You could start with the worst aspects of the law, build a coalition, do the usual stuff, get the worst aspects removed or perhaps ameliorated, fight off the backlash, then, a couple election cycles later, start talking about the almost-as-bad aspects of the law, build another coalition, fight some more, and so on, and so forth, progressively whittling the provisions of the immigration law down until finally you have whittled it down to nothing, or as close to nothing as you might realistically hope for. Then, if you have gotten it down to nothing, you can now turn around and say, Well, since we have basically no restrictions on immigration any more, why keep paying for a border control or internal immigration cops? Let’s go ahead and get rid of that stuff. And then you’re done.

The other way is the reverse strategy: to get rid of the tyranny by first aiming at the enforcement, rather than aiming at the law, by making the border control and internal immigration cops as irrelevant as you can make them. What you would do, then, is to work on building up more or less loose networks of black-market and grey-market operators, who can help illegal immigrants get into the country without being caught out by the Border Guard, who provide safe houses for them to stay on during their journey, who can help them get the papers that they need to skirt surveillance by La Migra, who can hook them up with work and places to live under the table, etc. etc. etc. To the extent that you can succeed in doing this, you’ve made immigration enforcement irrelevant. And without effective immigration enforcement, the state can bluster on as much as it wants about the Evil Alien Invasion; as a matter of real-world policy, the immigration law will become a dead letter.

When anarchists participate in compromise efforts, such as the LP or the Ron Paul campaign, those efforts pretty much always only allow one of these two routes: the policy-reform-first route. They don’t allow for the evasion-first route because to set up and sustain the kind of resources that are necessary to enable evasion and resistance of government laws, you’re already trying to take the train to a station where the minarchist passengers don’t want to go: that is, you’re creating counter-institutions that are directly competing with, and attempting to undermine, precisely those state functions (law enforcement, the courts, military and paramilitary defense of the state against its declared enemies) that minarchists intend to keep. But why should we prejudge the contest in favor of the minarchist-friendly route? After all, which of these is the better strategy for getting rid of immigration laws? Well, as far as effectiveness goes, I don’t actually think that that’s a very hard question to answer. Look at all the practical success that the immigration reform movement has had in liberalizing immigration laws over the past thirty years or so. Here, I’ll make a list for your convenience:

Now, compare the success that illegal immigrants, state-side family members, coyotes, good samaritan ranchers, off-the-books employers, et al. have had in getting people across the border in defiance of immigration law, while avoiding or minimizing government interference:

Estimated number of illegal immigrants in the United States

Here's a graph showing 3,000,000 people in 1980; 3,300,000 in 1982; 4,000,000 in 1986; 2,500,000 in 1989; 3,900,000 in 1992; 5,000,000 in 1996; 8,400,000 in 2000; and 11,100,000 in 2005.

Source: Pew Hispanic Center, via CNN

From a practical standpoint, if I’m looking for a going concern, I’d say that the root-striking approach seems to be making a lot more concrete progress than the branch-pruning approach, at least on the specific issue of immigration.

Of course, there are concerns other than practical success. For example, many minarchists are likely to believe that there is a moral advantage to working from within the political system, and convincing those around you to change their votes, rather than consorting with criminals and making an end-run around the law. That’s reasonable enough, and may be a reason to stick to electoral reform — if you are a minarchist. But, of course, I’m not: I’m an anarchist; I think that government laws have no color of authority whatsoever; and I don’t think that people who evade or defy immigration laws are criminals in any sense worth caring about. And my earlier post was directed mainly towards other anarchists on a point of anarchist strategy; so if your counter-argument starts out by presupposing a certain level of respect for government law, then it’s going to be a non-starter as a response to my argument.

Setting moral concerns aside, there is a pragmatic concern that strategies that bypass legal reform in order to evade the law are more risky. Electoral reform campaigns may not get the results as quickly or as extensively as black markets do, but they’re also less likely to get you shot or thrown in jail by the government. That’s true enough. But, on the other hand, it’s easy to overestimate the risks of black market activities; the fact is that tens of millions of people get away with this stuff every day already, and the more talented and resourceful people turn their attention towards evading and resisting tyrannical laws rather than pouring their resources down the toilet of political reform campaigns, the more people will be able to get away with, and the more reliably they’ll be able to get away with it. Moreover, just as there is far more to political campaigning than just the act of voting or declaring a candidacy or lobbying or filing suit — there’s also fundraising, crafting and running ads, house parties, holding debates, canvassing, op-eds, buttons, bumperstickers, and the rest — there is also much more to an evasion strategy than direct participation in black market activities. There is also moral agitation and advertising aimed at convincing people of the legitimacy, or at least the unimportance, of so-called criminal activity, with the usual set of op-eds, buttons, bumperstickers, debates, etc.; there’s legal education and legal defense funds; there’s nonviolent civil disobedience; there are grey market activities that provide arguably or completely legal services that nevertheless help black market operators evade detection; and any number of other things, too. No doubt lots of us can’t or won’t take the risks involved in direct black market activity — because our circumstances or our temperament prevent us from taking it on — but if you can’t take on that much risk, you can still do plenty of things to concretely aid the broader strategy, without putting yourself in the path of the law.

Now, for all that I’ve said, it still may be the case that, for some other issues, the branch-pruning approach is more likely to be effective than the root-striking approach. But if you are an anarchist, then I think it would behoove you to think carefully about whether this really is the case, before you start putting your limited time and energy into a branch-pruning political campaign. Certainly there are plenty of examples I could cite other than illegal immigration. Compare the concrete progress of lobbying and litigation for liberalizing copyright law to the concrete progress of music and movie pirates in simply evading the enforcement of copyright law. Or compare the concrete progress of lobbyists at liberalizing drug laws to the concrete progress of drug smugglers and drug dealers at moving drugs to willing customers in spite of the laws against it. However many policy issues there may be that will be more easily addressed by the route of legal reform, rather than by the route of undermining the state’s capacity to detect and retaliate against law-breaking, I think there is every reason that they will be few enough, and far enough between, that it just doesn’t make practical sense for anarchists to spend their limited resources on open-ended, long-term commitments to building up smaller-government institutions. Not if the price is deferring talk about the illegimacy of the State as such, or about the right of people to evade its laws, or about the right of people to create counter-institutions to defend themselves against its law enforcement, in order to keep our outreach palatable to more or less limited statists. Anything that is worth getting through that kind of co-operation can be got through limited-scope, issue-driven coalitions. And we can do that kind of outreach and activism without signing onto intra-party Accords that sacrifice anarchist rhetoric or practical action in the name of taking one for the party.

Anarchism is about anarchy. The activism, agitation, and organizing that we do ought to reflect that. If it doesn’t, then you may very well be wasting your time and talents.

Take the A-Train

Back in 1974, the newly-formed Libertarian Party adopted what’s now called the Dallas Accord. The Dallas Accord was intended to make the LP platform compatible with both minarchism and anarchism by keeping the LP officially silent on whether or not governments should exist, in the end; hence the platform focused mainly on what ought to be repealed, and where it suggested any positive action by some level of government, it qualified the plank with conditional phrases like Where governments exist, ….

I think that it was foolish for anarchists to sign on to the Dallas Accord. Partly because I’m a self-righteous ultra and I dislike that kind of calculated compromise in the name of political expediency. But also because of the very practical effect that it has had in constricting the range of subjects that market anarchists are willing to talk about or work on over the past three decades. Avoiding points of conflict between anarchists and minarchists means either studied silence or mumbling prevarication on issues that ought to be absolutely central for any anarchist worth her salt — among other things, the right of (state, local, neighborhood, individual) secession, the moral illegitimacy and practical futility of appeals to the Constitution, the arrogance and abusiveness of monopoly police forces, the illegitimacy of any and all forms of taxation, the fundamental problem with any form of government military or intelligence apparatus whatsoever, etc. Devoting your time and energy to a political organization whose messages are specifically adapted to be compatible with the minarchist program on these issues means frittering away a lot of energy fighting what goes on in the palace — while leaving untouched the pillars that hold the damned thing up. I would certainly agree that market anarchists should be willing to work together with coalition partners on particular issues of concern — the drug war, corporate welfare, the war on Iraq, etc. — whether those coalition partners are minarchists, or state Leftists, or whatever else. But who you’ll work with in issue-based coalitions is a different question from whose movement you’ll participate in, or what formations you’ll make the primary venue for your broader organizing and activism. I think it is long past time that we stop shelving our anarchism and indefinitely deferring our explicit anti-statism in order to fit in with limited statists in organizations like the Libertarian Party or Chairman Ron’s Great Libertarian Electoral Revolution.

Libertarians who favor a more conciliatory approach often use the metaphor of sharing a train as it heads toward the end of the line. For example, here’s Mike Hihn, paraphrasing Steve Dasbach:

There are fundamental differences in what our members see as a proper role for government — original constitution, much less than that, or none at all. Yet, we manage to co-exist and work together. That is precisely why we shall prevail.

Steve Dasbach, National LP Chair, describes our party as a Freedom Train. We’re all on that train together, heading in the same direction. But we’re not all going as far. Some will get off the train earlier than others. Eventually, the anarchists will be riding alone.

That’s not just an analogy. It’s a strategy for eventual governing [sic!]. As we’ve expanded from a tiny band of idealistic anarchists and minarchists, we’ve been forced to refine and expand our original coalition. We succeeded, by becoming a minority in the party we had founded — as we’d intended. (Well, some of us.)

— Mike Hihn, Washington Libertarian (August 1997): The Dallas Accord, Minarchists, and why our members sign a Pledge

And here’s (market anarchist) Tom Knapp:

I am an anarchist. I don’t think anyone who didn’t already know that will find it surprising. I believe that, ultimately, government always does more damage than it does good; that that’s its nature. Eventually, I hope that we will arrive at the point where we can choose to shrug it off entirely.

I also recognize that we aren’t there yet; therefore, unlike some anarchists, I choose to involve myself in the political process. Limited government is conducive to minimal government; minimal government allows the question to be raised, in an environment where it can be considered seriously: do we really need this institution at all? I don’t expect that to happen within my lifetime, nor do I feel the need to pursue it as an immediate goal.

The Libertarian Party is a train that is going in my direction. I recognize that the bulk of the passengers will be disembarking at stations somewhere east of the one for which my ticket is stamped.

Some will get off the train when we’ve reached their notion of limited government. Others will keep their seats until we arrive at their conception of minimal government. At each stop, those disembarking will have the opportunity to urge their fellow passengers to join them. At each stop, those hanging on for the whole ride will have the opportunity to urge those getting off to buy another ticket and go a little farther down the track.

I will personally welcome anyone into the Libertarian Party who wants more freedom and less government. In return, I expect those among them who want more government and less freedom than I do, having purchased a ticket on the same train I did, to refrain from throwing me from that train.

My presence does not stop them from reaching their destination (indeed, it could be argued that my ticket purchase helped make it possible for the train to run at all). Their presence does not stop me from reaching mine.

All aboard.

— Tom Knapp, Rational Review (2003-01-01): Time for a new Dallas Accord?

This metaphor has bugged me for a long time. Let me try to say why.

The image of political factions hopping onto a train, and getting off at different stations, might work well enough if you’re talking about factions within a party all of whom agree on the legitimacy of an electoral process. Say, for example, you’re talking about Constitution fundamentalists and principled minarchists; people get on the smaller-government train because it’s headed towards the political outcome that they want, and if the train reaches a point beyond which they don’t want to go, they hop off and try to find another train (i.e., another political party) that will take them there.

O.K., fair enough. But does the same image work for the relationship between minarchists and anarchists? I don’t think it does. The basic problem is that when we imagine the minarchists getting off the train, we imagine that they are simply done with going where they want to go, and, while they prefer to stay at the minimal-government station, we will be free to go on past that station to the anarchy station. They’re off the train, and that’s the end of working with them. But it’s not quite that simple. Once you’ve reached minarchism, you’re at the end of the line, as far as a process of reform through electoral politics goes. Moving from minarchism to anarchism isn’t like moving from Constitutional originalism to radical minarchism. It’s not one more reform down the line of electoral politics; it’s a qualitative change that involves chucking out the whole structure of electoral politics in favor of something different, specifically secession and individual sovereignty. Once the minimal State has been reached, there is nothing left to reform by further work from within; the only options left are (1) to attack the remaining minimal State; (2) to try to ignore it and get yourself attacked by it; or (3) to capitulate to it and give up on anarchy entirely.

So if minarchists simply hop off the train and leave the anarchists in peace to go on towards the anarchy station, then they are no longer acting as minarchists. Once we’re down to the minimal State and the anarchists start trying to withdraw and set up their own competing defense associations (or withdrawing in favor of individual self-defense, or whatever), the minarchists have only two choices. They can allow it to happen. But then what you have is government where any subject can choose to refuse or withdraw her allegiance at any time, and give it to a different government, or to no government at all. But that wouldn’t be a minimal government, or any kind of government at all; it would just be one voluntary association amongst many in a state of anarchy. Or they can try to forcibly suppress anarchists’ efforts to withdraw from the minimal State, and to move from limited government to no government. If the minarchists really mean it, then in the end they are going to be turning their limited-government cops and limited-government military on us, just as surely as any Bushista or Progressive.

So the appropriate image for anarchist-minarchist compromise really isn’t a train ride where minarchists hop off at the next-to-last station, and let the anarchists ride on towards the anarchy station. Statist politics don’t work like that. Rather, what will happen on this ride is that once the train pulls into the minarchy station, the minarchists will get off the train — and then they will try to block the tracks and threaten to open fire on the rest of us if we try to take the train any further towards the end of the line. That’s what being a minarchist means: government always comes out of the barrel of a gun, and that’s true whether the government is unlimited or limited, maximal or minimal. If you try to move, in any concrete way, from minarchy towards anarchy, those minarchists you spent so many years working with are still going to try to shoot you.

Personally, I have no desire to join any movement whose members will turn around and shoot me in the end. I am a market anarchist, and as I see it, as market anarchists, our primary allies shouldn’t be minarchists. They should be other anarchists, and it would be wise to make it so that that’s reflected in the organizations and causes that we spend our time and energy on.