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What is anarchism? What beliefs do anarchists share?

by Bryan Caplan

Anarchism is defined by The American Heritage College Dictionary as "The theory or doctrine that all forms of government are unnecessary, oppressive, and undesirable and should be abolished." Anarchism is a negative; it holds that one thing, namely government, is bad and should be abolished. Aside from this defining tenet, it would be difficult to list any belief that all anarchists hold. Just as atheists might support or oppose any viewpoint consistent with the non-existence of God, anarchists might and indeed do hold the entire range of viewpoints consistent with the non-existence of the state.

As might be expected, different groups of anarchists are constantly trying to define anarchists with different views out of existence, just as many Christians say that their sect is the only "true" Christianity and many socialists say that their socialism is the only "true" socialism.[[MORE]]

A number of critics have rejected my proffered definition of anarchism . . . The underlying complaint appears to be that anarcho-capitalists are not really anarchists, and that I have thus selected an overly inclusive definition. There are two frequently repeated arguments against my definition, which I respectively dub The Philological Argument and the Historical Argument:

The Philological Argument

Several critics have noted the origin of the term "anarchy," which derives from the Greek "arkhos," meaning "ruler," and the prefix "an-," meaning "without." It is therefore suggested that in my definition the word "government" should be replaced with the word "domination" or "rulership"; thus re-written, it would then read: "The theory or doctrine that all forms of rulership are unnecessary, oppressive, and undesirable and should be abolished."

This is all good and well, so long as we realise that various groups of anarchists will radically disagree about what is or is not an instance of "rulership." Thus, while left-anarchists will normally classify government, property, hierarchical organisations, and possibly religion, the family, male-female relations, and so on as "rulership," anarcho-capitalists will say that only governments (as well as private criminal actions) constitute rulership. The second definition thus winds up having the same extension as the first one, once one realises that disagreement about the nature of rulership exists. Thus, on its own terms this argument fails to exclude anarcho-capitalists.

The Historical Argument

A second popular argument states that historically, the term "anarchism" has been clearly linked with anarcho-socialists, anarcho-communists, anarcho-syndicalists, and other enemies of the capitalist system. Hence, the term "anarcho-capitalism" is a strange oxymoron which only demonstrates ignorance of the anarchist tradition.

Even if we were to accept the premise of this argument — to wit, that the meaning of a word is somehow determined by its historical usage — the conclusion would not follow because the minor premise is wrong. It is simply not true that from its earliest history, all anarchists were opponents of private property, free markets, and so on. To quote my[self]:

As Benjamin Tucker wrote in 1887, "It will probably surprise many who know nothing of Proudhon save his declaration that 'property is robbery' to learn that he was perhaps the most vigorous hater of Communism that ever lived on this planet. But the apparent inconsistency vanishes when you read his book and find that by property he means simply legally privileged wealth or the power of usury, and not at all the possession by the labourer of his products."

Nor did an ardent anarcho-communist like Kropotkin deny Proudhon or even Tucker the title of "anarchist." In his Modern Science and Anarchism, Kropotkin discusses not only Proudhon but "the American anarchist individualists who were represented in the fifties by S.P. Andrews and W. Greene, later on by Lysander Spooner, and now are represented by Benjamin Tucker, the well-known editor of the New York Liberty." Similarly in his article on anarchism for the 1910 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Kropotkin again freely mentions the American individualist anarchists, including "Benjamin Tucker, whose journal Liberty was started in 1881 and whose conceptions are a combination of those of Proudhon with those of Herbert Spencer."

To sum up, the individualist-collectivist controversy within anarchism, while it has sharpened in recent years, is nothing new. Thus, the historical argument fails on its own terms.

While both the Philological and the Historical Arguments fail on their own terms, this is among their lesser failings. Not only are their minor premises (i.e., "Anarcho-capitalists advocate rulership," and "Anarchists have historically been universally hostile to capitalism") false; their major premises are seriously flawed as well.

The major premise of the Philological Argument errs in assuming that the current meaning of words can be discovered by investigating their historical origins. This is plainly in error. The word "book" means whatever people happen to have in mind when they think of "books"; if historical investigation were to discover that the term derives from ancient Egyptian, and at that time meant "parchment," this would not show that current usage is "wrong." It would show that words change their meaning. Thus, my suggested definition is preferable to the definition based upon the Greek origin of the word "anarchy," because my definition fits more closely with the standard usage of most English speakers in general, and the standard usage of Internet users in particular.

The major premise of the Historical Argument is similarly flawed. Before the Protestant Reformation, the word "Christian," had referred almost entirely to Catholics (as well as adherents of the Orthodox Church) for about one thousand years. Does this reveal any linguistic confusion on the part of Lutherans, Calvinists, and so on, when they called themselves "Christians"? Of course not. It merely reveals that a word's historical usage does not determine its meaning. It is yet another example of the distinction between meaning and reference (which is perhaps best illustrated by the over-used example "Oedious wanted to marry Jocasta. Jocasta is Oedipus' mother. But Oedipus did not want to marry his mother." See e.g. John Searle's Intentionality.).

Of course, people with a different definition are not "wrong"; as any examination of a dictionary will reveal, the same sound can have an arbitrarily large number of distinct meanings. All that matters is that the particular meaning one has in mind is clear. Once this is accomplished, any definition, however idiosyncratic, is acceptable. The only danger to guard against is equivocation; that is, to use the idiosyncratic definition half the time, the normal one the rest of the time, and reach valid conclusions about absolutely nothing.

While the two most popular arguments for the definitional impossibility of anarcho-capitalism are erroneous, this does not preclude the creation of other exclusive definitions. (E.g., "Anarchism is what I advocate. Anything that I disagree with is, by definition, not 'anarchism.'") Rather than object to any other proposed definition, I simply make this blanket reply:

Let us designate anarchism1 anarchism as you define it. Let us designate anarchism2 anarchism as I and the American Heritage College Dictionary define it.

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