Viewpoint: Archism Revisited

Let's not neglect a good theory.


In recent months I have read and heard claims to the effect that within the libertarian movement anarchism has gained both the argumentative and popular advantage. About the latter I know very little, although judging by the moderate successes of the Libertarian Party and the support it has received from libertarians the claim seems dubious at best. But concerning anarchism's success at the philosophical level I have reason to believe that there is no truth to the claim at all.

What has led some anarchists to rejoice? First and foremost it is the lack of argumentative success of Robert Nozick's case for the so called mini-archist position. Admittedly, Nozick [in Anarchy, State, and Utopia] defends the case for government in a free society inadequately. He defends the rights of the individuals inadequately, as well, of course, since he simply stipulates but does not prove the existence of natural rights. His moral case for these rights is missing from his book: (This, incidentally, does not prevent Nozick from speculating in some detail about alleged moral obligations people may have toward animals!)

A more recent event that might encourage anarchist libertarians is Arthur Shenfield's incomplete proof of the archist libertarian position in the August 1976 issue of REASON. But then neither can one claim that David Friedman answered Mr. Shenfield with some knock-down argument for anarchism.

Aside from the failures of some particular arguments for archism is there any reason to claim that anarchism has won the argument? By any fair sampling of the literature there simply is no good reason for this. Murray Rothbard's case for so called "defense agencies" is a conceptual muddle—after all, the concept "defense agency" includes so much (e.g., body guards, security agents at banks, bouncers, protection gangs) that no distinction is discernible within this concept between the indiscriminate, lawless reaction to those whose actions are felt to be dangerous or threatening and the protection and preservation of the natural rights of individuals in accordance with due process. Rothbard builds into his concept of government the institution of taxation, thus getting his anarchism by means of the fallacy of pleading his case. He never demonstrates that government must include taxation. And Ayn Rand and others have shown that a free society's government can be financed without resorting to anything like theft. Levying contract fees is a perfectly moral means by which government could be financed.

Then there is R.A. Childs' "Open Letter to Ayn Rand" which was answered by Paul Beaird in a recent series of articles in Option, the Canadian libertarian magazine. Beaird's case is especially telling against Childs' charge that the case Rand makes denies the individual's right to self defense and protection. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Aside from these existing problems that anarchist libertarian theories face, it is interesting that none of the anarchists has answered my own discussion of anarchism and proof of the morality and value of government in my Human Rights and Human Liberties (Nelson-Hall, 1975). Granted I don't teach and write at Harvard University and my book will never be so prominent as Nozick's—nor, I am afraid, so clever and, in spots, brilliant. But I do treat the issues from start to finish, unlike Nozick. So if one wished to take on a full blown case for libertarian archism, the chance exists and all concerned parties are well aware of it. Instead the points are made against Nozick, Rand (neither of whom will answer very readily), and John Hospers (who generally treats the issue by posing difficulties for the anarchists, not a moral argument for archism).

The essence of the case for libertarian archism is that each individual should live so as to achieve happiness, which in the context of community life justifies taking measures to protect and preserve the conditions socially required for this purpose, i.e., each person's natural rights. To achieve this goal in human communities we should establish agencies specifically devoted to the task of protecting and preserving our rights. Since this implies that conflicting efforts not obstruct the end being served, those who wish to abstain from receiving the service remain legally isolated or should build other such agencies outside the jurisdiction of the agencies established in one community. This is unavoidable because jurisdictional intersection would (have to) result in mutually exclusive resolution of conflicts. So, as it were, "competing governments" within one homogeneous area are impossible in terms of the purpose of government, i.e., protection and preservation of individual rights (so that adjudication of claims that rights are being or have been violated must in principle be conclusive and binding).

What have libertarian anarchists said to this? Either that the above is nothing but anarchism in the end, or that exclusive jurisdiction violates the rights of individuals. The former claim is difficult to understand in view of the constant emphasis of anarchists on competition within geographically homogeneous areas. The latter claim is false, pace Rothbard et al. So what can one do? I do not propose to stand on a rooftop and shout for 24 hours each day that the archist case is sound, as the anarchists appear to do sometimes for their case. When arguments come my way I'll do the right thing and consider them carefully. But to date the result of having done this has left me with the archist position. I really am not emotionally tied to it—I have no vested interest in archism other than the vested interest I have in abiding by the force of argument. Sure, I don't rejoice in discovering that I have erred, but it is better to admit it than to err further and hide the truth from oneself. I have changed my mind enough in my life that I know it causes no permanent damage.

I admit that resolving this dispute is not my highest priority, nor need it be for others. But when people insist on claiming argumentative victory where I see none and yet have made the effort to see what's what, it behooves me to speak out.

Sometime ago a fellow reviewed Nozick in Libertarian Forum and concluded by saying that after his criticism the ball is in the archist's court. This is false—it may perhaps apply to Nozick's archism, but it is to plead the anarchist case to think there is none other.

Senior Editor Tibor Machan teaches philosophy at SUNY-Fredonia. His Viewpoint alternates in this space with those of Murray Rothbard and Alan Reynolds.