In his Open Letter to Libertarians on Ron Paul, featured on
anti-war, pro-market LewRockwell.com, anarchist David Gordon made the
following objection to Steven Horwitz’s pro-choice libertarian objections to
Paul’s position on abortion:
No power to regulate abortion is granted to the federal government. Some of course claim that the Fourteenth Amendment changes matters, but it requires very strained interpretation to conjure a right to abortion out of the text of this Amendment. One critic of Ron Paul has admitted that Roe v. Wade is bad law but thinks we should somehow get to thecorrectpro-abortion view. Is this not to surrender the possibility of constitutional limits on the federal government?
To which I replied:
Yes. So what?
Anarchists don’t believe in constitutional government.
In his recent rejoinder, Gordon responded:
Anarchists oppose a monopoly state, but it hardly follows from this that if there is a government, anarchists shouldn’t be concerned with restraining it.
But I do not claim that anarchists shouldn’t be concerned with restraining actually existing governments. What I claim is that anarchists do not recognize the legitimacy of constitutional governments any more than they recognize the legitimacy unconstitutional governments, since any government, no matter how restrained by a written constitution, must necessarily violate the rights of innocent individual people in order to remain a government. But if constitutional government has no special claim on our allegiance with respect to its legitimacy, then restraining government through the instrument of a written constitution is, at the most, a pragmatic strategy which should be pursued or abandoned in any given case according to its likelihood of success. If it turns out to be a foolish strategy, then abandoning it is no great loss for libertarians.
But if the question is one of practical prospects, then the strategy of trying
to restrain the federal government through the instrument of the United States
Constitution has already been empirically tested, and it has already failed. As
Lysander Spooner wrote,
But whether the Constitution really be one
thing, or another, this much is certain — that it has either authorized such a
government as we have had, or has been powerless to prevent it. In either case,
it is unfit to exist. Thus I would argue that anarchists should be intensely
concerned with the problem of restraining actually existing governments. What I
deny is that there is either any moral or any strategic reason to try to do so
through the instrument of paper constitutions.
Concerning Roe, I will pause to say that,
unlike Steven Horwitz, I don’t regard the majority decision as bad
constitutional law. Since I am an anarchist, I regard the U.S. constitution as
having no color of legal authority, so I don’t much think that there is a
right way or a
wrong way to read the Constitution in legal
contexts, and I don’t think that the failure of a ruling to line up with a
restrictive reading of the ipsissima verba of the Constitution is any more of a
vice in the ruling than its failure to line up with a traditionalist reading of
shariah. If such rulings can be evaluated as good or bad law at all, it must be
on the basis of other standards — such as how far they serve to restrain or to
promote actual state aggression. To the extent abortion laws are invasions
against the liberty of pregnant women to dispose of their own bodies as they see
fit, a ruling that repeals those laws is a good ruling, even if it doesn’t line
up with a literalist reading of the Constitution. To the extent that eminent
domain laws are invasions against the liberty of homeowners to keep their own
homes, Kelo was a bad ruling, even if it does line up with some
literalist readings of the Constitution.
Some object to Ron Paul because he does not support anopen bordersimmigration policy. But why should one take this position to be essential to libertarianism? Hans Hoppe has raised strong objections to open borders; and Murray Rothbard, in his last years, abandoned the view. Free immigration combined with a welfare state is a dangerous brew: does it make sense to reject Ron Paul because he cannot accept it?
Anarchists don’t believe in national borders and they don’t believe in a federal police state to enforce them.
On immigration, Johnson says that anarchists should ignore national boundaries. Why? Once more, anarchism is a view about the justification of government. It is opposed to states, not nations.
But I did not say that anarchism per se is opposed to
nations. I said
anarchists don’t believe in national borders. In anarchy there are
no national borders, only the boundaries of individual or common property.
Nobody has any just claim to enforce restrictions on any borders other than
these. But the continent-spanning territory of the United States of America is
not the common property of the American nation, let alone the proprietary
domain of the United States government. Thus there is no entity that has any
just claim to set collective terms for immigration that can be imposed upon the
entire nation. Anarchism rejects all forms of coercion against peaceful people,
including the coercion that must necessarily be committed against landlords,
employers, and migrant workers in order for the federal government to exile
workers from private property onto which they have been invited, or to stop them
from doing jobs for willing employers. That includes not only existing federal
immigration laws, but also the (more aggressive) federal immigration laws that
Ron Paul supports, and the federal immigration laws that Hans-Hermann Hoppe has
deluded himself into thinking that an anarchist can consistently support.
Anarchists should take no notice whatsoever of government-enforced national
boundaries, except to trample them underfoot as an usurpation.
In response to my complaints against a particular pseudo-libertarian argument in favor of immigration laws, Gordon adds:
He points out that some efforts to restrict immigration use violence against people; and he is right that here lies danger. Libertarians who favor immigration restrictions need to specify exactly what measures they think permissible. Ron Paul doesn’t favor beating and jailing people.
I have no idea why Gordon would say this. Of course Ron Paul does favor
beating and jailing people in the name of his immigration control policy. He
favors the creation and enforcement of federal immigration laws, including a
paramilitary lock-down of the land borders, aggressive enforcement of the
existing visa system, and the continued criminalization (
no amnesty) of
currently undocumented immigrants. He also favors the necessary means to these
ends: border walls, paramilitary border patrols, government immigration dossiers
and employment papers, internal immigration cops, detention centers, and all the
other necessary means to interdicting, discovering, arresting, jailing, and
deporting people who try to live and work peacefully in the United States
without a federal permission slip for their existence. If you don’t believe that
this process necessarily involves violent means, then just try to cross the
border without government papers and see what happens to you.
For what it’s worth, I don’t claim that anyone who favors immigration laws is (ipso facto) no longer a True Libertarian. But I do claim that libertarians cannot hold the position consistently, and that attempting to hold the position while also holding a libertarian theory of individual rights necessarily involves grave cognitive vices, and probably grave moral vices, too. In any case support for coercive immigration laws is a good reason for libertarians to refuse their support to a candidate for political office.
On the relationship between libertarianism and leftist or feminist cultural projects, Gordon clarifies that he was not referring to the argument that Roderick Long and I advance in our essay on libertarian feminism, but rather to a different argument by a different writer. He has also stressed elsewhere that his argument is only intended to recommend Ron Paul as a candidate, not to claim that libertarians have some kind of moral obligation to support Ron Paul (or any other candidate in government elections). Fair enough. I’ll let those to whom his letter did refer speak for themselves, as far as the charge of subordinating libertarianism to leftist concerns goes. And for what it’s worth, my intention here is not to claim that libertarians have an obligation not to vote for Ron Paul, or even to make any recommendation for or against voting for Ron Paul. It is merely to take issue with the logic of certain arguments that have been used against libertarian critics of Paul’s campaign. In that vein, I don’t buy the argument that follows:
Johnson correctly claims that the concept of libertarianism doesn’t imply political support for libertarians in elections. I think, though, that if someone who defends political action refuses to support Ron Paul just because he is not a left libertarian, then he is subordinating libertarianism to leftist views.
When Gordon speaks of
subordinating libertarianism to leftist views, he
does not make it clear whether he means subordinating the left-libertarian’s
libertarianism of as a political principle, or whether he means
subordinating the candidate’s libertarianism as a criterion for
supporting a that candidate in government elections. If the former, then
Gordon’s conditional is obviously false. There are lots of practical considerations
that affect whether or not one should support a particular candidate in government
elections, and declining to support a particularly libertarian candidate for
reasons other than her own level of libertarianism is not equivalent to
subordinating your own libertarian principles to those other concerns. (I
wouldn’t support voting for Murray Rothbard for President, either, even though
he would be a much more libertarian candidate than Ron Paul. Since he’s dead,
and therefore ineligible to run, such a campaign would be foolish. But this
decision doesn’t mean that I subordinate libertarian principles to expediency.)
If, on the other hand, he means that such a choice reflects a subordination of criteria based on the candidate’s level of libertarianism to criteria that are based on other considerations, the conditional is still false, although less obviously so. If I reject X for lacking feature A, while X does have feature B, you cannot reliably infer from my choice that I subordinate preferences for B to preferences for A. It may very well be that B and A are valued equally and indepdently of one another, and that lacking either is considered a sufficient condition for rejecting an alternative.
But more to the point, even if Gordon’s conditional were true on this understanding, it is not clear why that would be objectionable. There is no reason for principled libertarians to treat a candidate’s overall level of libertarianism as the sole or the decisive or even the most important criterion in choosing whether to vote for that candidate, or someone else, or nobody at all. Insofar as voting has any worth at all for anarchists, it is only instrumentally, as a means of defense against government invasions of your own or the liberty of other people you are concerned for. But there’s no guarantee that that end will always be best served by adopting the candidate’s overall level of libertarianism as the sole or the decisive criterion for supporting that candidate. They may be or they may not be, depending on the breaks.
In either case, it is, once more, a serious mistake for libertarians of any stripe, and especially anarchists, to treat government elections as the be-all and end-all of libertarianism.
Gordon closes his rejoinder by saying:
Johnson apparently accepts this as a good argument:Johnson believes p; therefore, anarchists believe p.His post is unfortunately a prime example of the libertarian dogmatism I was most concerned with in my Open Letter.
Hardly. All that I claim is that a couple of propositions — in particular, rejecting the legitimacy of constitutional governments, and rejecting the legitimacy of enforcing restrictions on government-defined national borders, are well-established, core doctrines of anarchism as such.
Core, not essential; anarchism is a family resemblance concept, and some anarchists may deviate from some core anarchist beliefs without ceasing to count as anarchists. But certainly a letter which is written by an anarchist for an audience which includes many other anarchists ought to take such core beliefs seriously, and to recognize that arguments that either tacitly or explicitly presume the falsity of those core doctrines will fail to be persuasive to those who follow the plumb-line.
If this be dogmatism, let us make the most of it.
- GT 2007-11-29: Res ipsa loquitur
- GT 2007-09-06: Marching orders
- GT 2006-09-17: International Ignore the Constitution Day festivities
- GT 2006-04-05: Resistance is futile.
- GT 2006-03-31: Libertarians Against Property Rights:
You Will Be AssimilatedEdition
- GT 2006-01-25: We put the
Anarchyand comments thereon
- GT 2005-12-15: Bill of Rights Day festivities
- GT 2004-06-24: Pro-Choice on Everything, Part I
- GT 2004-05-30: Why We Marched