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Isn't anarchism utopian?

by Bryan Caplan

Utopianism is perhaps the most popular criticism made of anarchism. In an atypically uncharitable passage in his European Socialism, socialist historian Carl Landauer states:

There is certainly one truth in anarchistic beliefs: Every large organisation contains an element of veiled or open force, and every kind of force is an evil, if we consider its effects on the human character. But is it not the lesser evil? Can we dispense with force? When this question is clearly put, the case for anarchism seems extremely weak. It is true, that the experiment of an entirely forceless society have never been made. But such evidence as we have does not indicate that ill intentions will cease to exist if repressive force disappears, and it is clear enough that one ill-intentioned person can upset a large part of society if there is no repressive force. The fact that some intelligent and highly idealistic men and women have believed and still believe in anarchism shows that there is a type of sectarianism which accepts a belief in spite of, or perhaps because of, its apparent absurdity.

As we have seen, however, virtually all anarcho-capitalists and many left-anarchists accept the use of force in some circumstances. Landauer's remark would be better directed at absolute pacifists rather than anarchists in general.

Anarchists' supposed unwillingness to use force in any circumstance is only one reason why they have been widely perceived as utopian. Sometimes the utopian charge is trivial; if, for example, any radical change is labelled "utopian." If on the other hand "utopian" simply means that anarchism could work if and only if all people were virtuous, and thus in practice would lead to the imposition of new forms of oppression, then the question is more interesting. Interesting, because this is more or less the charge that different types of anarchists frequently bring against each other.

To the left-anarchist, for example, anarcho-capitalism is based upon a truly fantastic picture of economics, in which free competition somehow leads to prosperity and freedom for all. To them, the anarcho-capitalists' vision of "economic harmonies" and the workings of the "invisible hand" are at best unlikely, and probably impossible. Hence, in a sense they accuse the anarcho-capitalists of utopianism.

The anarcho-capitalists charge the left-anarchists similarly. For the latter imagine that somehow a communitarian society could exist without forcible repression of dissenting individualists; think that incentives for production would not be impaired by enforced equality; and confusedly equate local democracy with freedom. Moreover, they generally have no explanation for how crime would be prevented or what safeguards would prevent the rise of a new ruling elite. For the anarcho-capitalist, the left-anarchist is again hopelessly utopian.

But in any case, probably most anarchists would offer a similar reply to the charge that they are utopians. Namely: What is truly utopian is to imagine that somehow the government can hold massive power without turning it to monstrous ends. As Rothbard succinctly puts it: "The man who puts all the guns and all the decision-making power into the hands of the central government and then says, 'Limit yourself'; it is he who is truly the impractical utopian." Is not the whole history of the twentieth century an endless list of examples of governments easily breaking the weak bonds placed upon their ability to oppress and even murder as they see fit?

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