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What criticisms have been made of anarchism?

by Bryan Caplan

Anarchism of various breeds has been criticised from an extremely wide range of perspectives. State-socialists, classical liberals, and conservatives have each on occasion examined anarchist theorists and found them wanting. After considering the unifying argument endorsed by virtually all of the critics of anarchism, we shall turn to the more specific attacks of Marxist, moderate libertarian, and conservative lineage.

"An anarchist society, lacking any central coercive authority, would quickly degenerate into violent chaos."

The most common criticism, shared by the entire range of critics, is basically that anarchism would swiftly degenerate into a chaotic Hobbesian war of all-against-all. Thus the communist Friedrich Engels wonders "[H]ow these people propose to run a factory, operate a railway or steer a ship without having in the last resort one deciding will, without single management, they of course do not tell us." He continues: "The authority of the majority over the minority also ceases. Every individual and every community is autonomous; but as to how society, even of only two people, is possible unless each gives up some of his autonomy, Bakunin again maintains silence." And similarly, the classical liberal Ludwig von Mises states that "An anarchistic society would be exposed to the mercy of every individual. Society cannot exist if the majority is not ready to hinder, by the application or threat of violent action, minorities from destroying the social order. This power is vested in the state or government."

Or to consider a perhaps less ideological writer, Thomas Hobbes implicitly criticises anarchist theory when he explains that "Hereby it is manifest, that during the time men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called Warre; and such a warre, as is of every man, against every man." Hobbes goes on to add that "It may peradventure be thought, there was never such a time, nor condition of warre as this; and I believe it was never generally so, over all the world: But there are many places, where they live so now. For the savage people in many places of America, except the government of small Families, the concord whereof dependeth on naturall lust, have no government at all; and live at this day in that brutish manner, as I said before." Since it is in the interest of the strong to take what they want from the weak, the absence of government lead inexorably to widespread violence and the prevention or destruction of civilisation itself.

Anarchists of all varieties would reject this argument; sometimes claiming that the critic misunderstands their position, other times that the critic's assumptions are too pessimistic. Kropotkin, for example, would seriously dispute the claim that war is the natural state of ungoverned human beings; like many other species of animals, cooperation is more common, natural, and likely. Left-anarchists generally would normally object that these criticisms rest upon contingent cultural assumptions arising from a competitive scarcity economy. Replace these institutions with humane and egalitarian ones; then poverty, the cause of crime and aggression, would greatly decrease. Finally, many left-anarchists envisage cooperatives and communes adopting and enforcing rules of appropriate conduct for those who wish to join.

The anarcho-capitalist would likely protest that the critic misunderstands his view: He does believe that police and laws are necessary and desirable, and merely holds that they could be supplied by the free market rather than government. More fundamentally, he doubts the game-theoretic underpinnings of Hobbes' argument, for it ignores the likelihood that aggressive individuals or firms will provoke retaliation. Just as territorial animals fight when defending their territory, but yield when confronted on the territory of another animal, rational self-interested individuals and firms would usually find aggression a dangerous and unprofitable practice. In terms of game theory, the anarcho-capitalist thinks that Hobbes' situation is a Hawk-Dove game rather than a Prisoners' Dilemma. (In the Prisoners' Dilemma, war/non-cooperation would be a strictly dominant strategy; in a Hawk-Dove game there is normally a mixed-strategy equilibrium in which cooperation/peace is the norm but a small percentage of players continue to play war/non-cooperation.) Self-interested police firms would gladly make long-term arbitration contracts with each other to avoid mutually destructive bloodshed.

The Marxist critique of left-anarchism

One of the most famous attacks on anarchism was launched by Karl Marx during his battles with Proudhon and Bakunin. The ultimate result of this protracted battle of words was to split the nineteenth-century workers' movement into two distinct factions. In the twentieth century, the war of words ended in blows: While Marxist-Leninists sometimes cooperated with anarchists during the early stages of the Russian and Spanish revolutions, violent struggle between them was the rule rather than the exception.

There were at least three distinct arguments that Marx aimed at his anarchist opponents.

First, the development of socialism had to follow a particular historical course, whereas the anarchists mistakenly believed that it could be created by force of will alone. "A radical social revolution is connected with certain historical conditions of economic development; the latter are its presupposition. Therefore it is possible only where the industrial proletariat, together with capitalist production, occupies at least a substantial place in the mass of the people." Marx continues: "He [Bakunin] understands absolutely nothing about social revolution . . . For him economic requisites do not exist . . . He wants a European social revolution, resting on the economic foundation of capitalist production, to take place on the level of the Russian or Slavic agricultural and pastoral peoples . . . Will power and not economic conditions is the basis for his social revolution." Proudhon, according to Marx, suffered from the same ignorance of history and its laws: "M. Proudhon, incapable of following the real movement of history, produces a phantasmagoria which presumptuously claims to be dialectical . . . From his point of view man is only the instrument of which the idea or the eternal reason makes use in order to unfold itself." This particular argument is probably of historical interest only, in light of the gross inaccuracy of Marx's prediction of the path of future civilisation; although perhaps the general claim that social progression has material presuppositions retains some merit.

Second, Marx ridiculed Bakunin's claim that a socialist government would become a new despotism by socialist intellectuals. In light of the prophetic accuracy of Bakunin's prediction in this area, Marx's reply is almost ironic: "Under collective ownership the so-called people's will disappears to make way for the real will of the cooperative." It is on this point that most left-anarchists reasonably claim complete vindication; just as Bakunin predicted, the Marxist "dictatorship of the proletariat" swiftly became a ruthless "dictatorship over the proletariat."

Finally, Marx stated that the anarchists erroneously believed that the government supported the capitalist system rather than the other way around. In consequence, they were attacking the wrong target and diverting the workers' movement from its proper course. Engels delineated the Marxist and left-anarchist positions quite well: "Bakunin maintains that it is the state which has created capital, that the capitalist has his capital only by the grace of the state. As, therefore, the state is the chief evil, it is above all the state which must be done away with and then capitalism will go to blazes of itself. We, on the contrary, say: Do away with capital, the concentration of the means of production in the hands of the few, and the state will fall of itself." The left-anarchist would probably accept this as a fair assessment of their disagreement with the Marxists, but point out how in many historical cases since (and before) Marx's time governments have steered their countries towards very different aims and policies, whereas capitalists are often fairly adaptive and passive.

The minarchists' attack on anarcho-capitalism

Probably the earliest minarchist attack on anarcho-capitalism may be found in Ayn Rand's essay "The Nature of Government." ("Minarchism" designates the advocacy of a "minimal" or nightwatchman state, supplying only police, courts, a legal system, and national defence.) Her critique contained four essential arguments. The first essentially repeated Hobbes' view that society without government would collapse into violent chaos. The second was that anarcho-capitalist police firms would turn to war as soon as a dispute broke out between individuals employing different protection agencies: "[S]uppose Mr. Smith, a customer of Government A, suspects that his next-door neighbour, Mr. Jones, a customer of Government B, has robbed him; a squad of Police A proceeds to Mr. Jones' house and is met at the door by a squad of Police B, who declare that they do not recognise the authority of Government A. What happens then? You take it from there." Her third argument was that anarcho-capitalism was an expression of an irrational subjectivist epistemology which would allow each person to decide for himself or herself whether the use of physical force was justified. Finally, her fourth argument was that anarcho-capitalism would lack an objective legal code (meaning, presumably, both publicly known and morally valid).

Rand's arguments were answered at length in Roy Childs' "Objectivism and the State: An Open Letter to Ayn Rand," which tried to convince her that only the anarcho-capitalist position was consistent with her view that the initiation of force was immoral. In brief, Childs argued that like other free-market institutions, private police would have economic incentives to perform their tasks peacefully and efficiently: Police would negotiate arbitration agreements in advance precisely to avoid the kind of stand-off that Rand feared, and an objective legal code could be developed by free-market judges. Childs strongly contested Rand's claim that anarcho-capitalism had any relation to irrationalism; an individual could be rational or irrational in his judgment to use defensive violence, just as a government could be rational or irrational in its judgment to do so. As Childs queried, "By what epistemological criterion is an individual's action classified as 'arbitrary,' while that of a group of individuals is somehow 'objective'?"

Robert Nozick launched the other famous attempt to refute the anarcho-capitalist on libertarian grounds. Basically, Nozick argued that the supply of police and legal services was a geographic natural monopoly, and that therefore a state would emerge by the "invisible hand" processes of the market itself. The details of his argument are rather complex: Nozick postulated a right, strongly contested by other libertarians, to prohibit activities which were exceptionally risky to others; he then added that the persons whose actions were so prohibited were entitled to compensation. Using these two principles, Nozick claimed that the dominant protection agency in a region could justifiably prohibit competition on the grounds that it was "too risky," and therefore become an "ultra-minimal state." But at this point, it would be obligated to compensate consumers who were prohibited from purchasing competitors' services, so it would do so in kind by giving them access to its own police and legal services — thereby becoming a minimal state. And none of these steps, according to Nozick, violates libertarian rights.

There have been literally dozens of anarchist attacks on Nozick's derivation of the minimal state. To begin with, no state arose in the manner Nozick describes, so all existing states are illegitimate and still merit abolition. Secondly, anarcho-capitalists dispute Nozick's assumption that defence is a natural monopoly, noting that the modern security guard and arbitration industries are extremely decentralised and competitive. Finally, they reject Nozick's principles of risk and compensation, charging that they lead directly to the despotism of preventive law.

The conservative critique of anarchism

The conservative critique of anarchism is much less developed, but can be teased out of the writings of such authors as Edmund Burke, Russell Kirk, and Ernest van den Haag. (Interestingly, Burke scholars are still debating whether the early Burke's quasi-anarchistic A Vindication of Natural Society was a serious work or a subtle satire.)

Burke would probably say that, like other radical ideologues, the anarchists place far too much reliance on their imperfect reason and not enough on the accumulated wisdom of tradition. Society functions because we have gradually evolved a system of workable rules. It seems certain that Burke would apply his critique of the French revolutionaries with equal force to the anarchists: "They have no respect for the wisdom of others; but they pay it off by a very full measure of confidence in their own. With them it is a sufficient motive to destroy an old scheme of things, because it is an old one. As to the new, they are in no sort of fear with regard to the duration of a building run up in haste; because duration is no object to those who think little or nothing has been done before their time, and who place all their hopes in discovery." To attempt to replace the wisdom of the ages with a priori theories of justice is sure to lead to disaster, because functional policies must be judicious compromises between important competing ends. Or in Burke's words, "The science of constructing a commonwealth, or renovating it, or reforming it, is, like every other experimental science, not to be taught a priori. Nor is it a short experience that can instruct us in that practical science; because the real effects of moral causes are not always immediate." The probable result of any attempt to realise anarchist principles would be a brief period of revolutionary zeal, followed by chaos and social breakdown resulting from the impracticality of the revolutionary policies, and finally ending in a brutal dictator winning widespread support by simply restoring order and rebuilding the people's sense of social stability.

Many anarchists would in fact accept Burke's critique of violent revolution, which is why they favour advancing their views gradually through education and nonviolent protest. In fact, Bakunin's analysis of Marxism as the ideology (i.e., rationalisation for the class interests of) middle-class intellectuals in fact differs little from Burke's analysis: Bakunin, like Burke, perceived that no matter how oppressive the current system may be, there are always power-hungry individuals who favour violent revolution as their most practical route to absolute power. Their protests against actual injustices must be seen in light of their ultimate aim of imposing even more ruthless despotism upon the people.

On other issues, anarchists would disagree strongly with several of Burke's claims. Many forms of misery stem from the blind adherence to tradition; and rational thinking has sparked countless improvements in human society ever since the decline of traditional despotism. Moreover, anarchists do not propose to do away with valuable traditions, but simply request evidence that particular traditions are valuable before they lend them their support. And what is to be done when — as is usually the case — a society harbours a wide range of mutually incompatible traditions?

Anarchists might also object that the Burkean analysis relies too heavily upon tradition as a result rather than a process. Cultural evolution may constantly weed out foolish ideas and practices, but it hardly follows that such follies have already perished; for the state to defend tradition is to strangle the competitive process which tends to make tradition sensible. As Vincent Cook explains: "[I]t is precisely because wisdom has to be accumulated in incremental steps that it cannot be centrally planned by any single political or religious authority, contrary to the aspirations of conservatives and collectivists alike. While the collectivists are indeed guilty of trying to rationalistically reconstruct society in defiance of tradition (a valid criticism of left-anarchists), conservatives on the other hand are guilty of trying to freeze old traditions in place. Conservatives have forgotten that the process of wisdom accumulation is an on-going one, and instead have opted for the notion that some existing body of traditions (usually Judeo-Christian) already represent social perfection."

Russell Kirk, noted Burke scholar, has written a brief critique of the modern libertarian movement. (Another conservative, Ernest van den Haag, wrote a lengthier essay with a similar theme and perspective.) In all likelihood, Kirk would apply many (but not all) of the same arguments to left-anarchists.

Kirk faults the libertarians (and when he discusses "libertarians" he usually seems to have the anarcho-capitalists in mind) on at least six counts. First, they deny the existence of a "transcendent moral order." Second, order is prior to liberty, and liberty is possible only after government establishes a constitutional order. Third, libertarians assume that self-interest is the only possible social bond, ignoring the broader communitarian vision of human nature found in both the Aristotelian and Judeo-Christian traditions. Fourth, libertarians erroneously assume that human beings are naturally good or at least perfectible. Fifth, the libertarian foolishly attacks the state as such, rather than merely its abuses. Sixth and last, the libertarian is an arrogant egoist who disregards valuable ancient beliefs and customs.

Left-anarchists would perhaps agree with Kirk on points three and six. So if Kirk were to expand his attack on anarchism to encompass the left-anarchists as well, he might acquit them of these two charges. The remaining four, however, Kirk would probably apply equally to anarchists of both varieties.

How would anarchists reply to Kirk's criticisms? On the "moral transcendence" issue, they would point out there have been religious as well as non-religious anarchists; and moreover, many non-religious anarchists still embrace moral objectivism (notably anarchists in the broader natural law tradition). Most anarchists would deny that they make self-interest the only possible social bond; and even those who would affirm this (such as anarcho-capitalists influenced by Ayn Rand) have a broad conception of self-interest consistent with the Aristotelian tradition.

As to the priority of order over liberty, many anarchists influenced by e.g. Kropotkin would reply that as with other animal species, order and cooperation emerge as a result, not a consequence of freedom; while anarcho-capitalists would probably refer Kirk to the theorists of "spontaneous order" such as Hayek, Hume, Smith, and even Edmund Burke himself.

Most anarchists would reply that they happily accept valuable customs and traditions, but believe that they have shown that some ancient practices and institutions — above all, the state — have no value whatever.

"We are already in a state of anarchy."

Under anarchy, it is conceivable that e.g. a brutal gang might use its superior might to coerce everyone else to do as they wish. With nothing more powerful than the gang, there would (definitionally) be nothing to stop them. But how does this differ from what we have now? Governments rule because they have the might to maintain their power; in short, because there is no superior agency to restrain them. Hence, reason some critics of anarchism, the goal of anarchists is futile because we are already in a state of anarchy.

This argument is confused on several levels.

First, it covertly defines anarchy as unrestrained rule of the strongest, which is hardly what most anarchists have in mind. (Moreover, it overlooks the definitional differences between government and other forms of organised aggression; Weber in particular noted that governments claim a monopoly over the legitimate use of force in a given geographical region.) In fact, while anarchism is logically compatible with any viewpoint which rejects the existence of the state, there have been extremely few (perhaps no) anarchists who combined their advocacy of anarchism with support for domination by those most skilled in violence.

Second, it seems to assume that all that particular anarchists advocate is the abolition of the state; but as we have seen, anarchism is normally combined with additional normative views about what ought to replace the state. Thus, most anarchist theorists believe more than merely that the state should not exist; they also believe that e.g. society should be based upon voluntary communes, or upon strict private property rights, etc.

Third, the argument sometimes confuses a definitional with a causal claim. It is one thing to argue that anarchy would lead to the rule by the strongest; this is a causal claim about the likely results of the attempt to create an anarchist society. It is another thing entirely to argue that anarchy means rule by the strongest. This is simply a linguistic confusion, best illustrated by noting that under this definition anarchy and the state are logically compatible.

A related but more sophisticated argument, generally levelled against anarcho-capitalists, runs as follows. If competing protection agencies could prevent the establishment of an abusive, dominant firm, while don't they do so now? In short, if market checks against the abuse of power actually worked, we wouldn't have a state in the first place.

There are two basic replies to this argument. First of all, it completely ignores the ideological factor. Anarcho-capitalists are thinking of how competing firms would prevent the rise of abusive protection monopolists in a society where most people don't support the existence of such a monopolist. It is one thing to suppress a "criminal firm" when it stands condemned by public opinion and the values internalized by that firm's employees; it is another thing entirely to suppress our current "criminal firms" (i.e., governments) when qua institution enjoy the overwhelming support of the populace and the state's enforcers believe in their own cause. When a governing class loses confidence in its own legitimacy — from the Ancien Regime in France to the Communist Party in the USSR — it becomes vulnerable and weak. Market checks on government could indeed establish an anarchist society if the self-confidence of the governing class were severely eroded by anarchist ideas.

Secondly, the critique ignores the possibility of multiple social equilibria. If everyone drives on the right side of the road, isolated attempts to switch to the left side will be dangerous and probably unsuccessful. But if everyone drives on the left side of the road, the same danger exists for those who believe that the right side is superior and plan to act on their believe. Similarly, it is quite possible that given that a government exists, the existence of government is a stable equilibrium; but if a system of competitive protection firms existed, that too would be a stable equilibrium. In short, just because one equilibrium exists and is stable doesn't mean that it is the only possible equilibrium. Why then is the state so pervasive if it is just one possible equilibrium? The superiority of this equilibrium is one possible explanation; but it could also be due to ideology, or an inheritance from our barbarous ancestors.

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What Is Anarchism? What Beliefs Do Anarchists Share?

Why Should One Consider Anarchism In The First Place?

Don’t Anarchists Favour Chaos?

Don’t Anarchists Favour The Abolition Of The Family, Property, Religion, And Other Social Institutions Besides The State?

What Major Subdivisions May Be Made Among Anarchists?

Is Anarchism The Same Thing As Libertarianism?

Is Anarchism The Same Thing As Socialism?

Who Are The Major Anarchist Thinkers?

How Would Left-anarchy Work?

What Criticisms Have Been Made Of Anarchism?

What Other Anarchist Viewpoints Are There?

What Is Anarcho–Capitalism?

What Is Anarcho–Communism?

What Moral Justifications Have Been Offered For Anarchism?

What Are The Major Debates Between Anarchists? What Are The Recurring Arguments?

How Would Anarchists Handle The “Public Goods” Problem

Are Anarchists Pacifists?

Are Anarcho–Capitalists Anti–War?

Have There Been Any Historical Examples Of Anarchist Societies?

Isn’t Anarchism Utopian?

Don’t Anarchists Assume That All People Are Innately Virtuous?

Aren’t Anarchists Terrorists?

How Might An Anarchist Society Be Achieved?

Why Should One Consider Anarcho-Capitalism?

Do Anarcho-Capitalists Favour Chaos?

Is Anarcho-Capitalism Utopian?

What Justifications Are There For Anarcho-Capitalism?

Are There Different Types Of Anarcho-Capitalism?

How Do Anarcho-Capitalists Compare With Other Anarchists?

Is Anarcho-Capitalism The Same Thing As Libertarianism?

How Would Anarcho-Capitalism Work?

How Would Anarcho-Capitalists Handle The “Public Goods” Problem?

What Will A Stateless Society Look Like?

Have There Been Any Anarcho-Capitalist Societies?

Can Anarcho-Capitalism Work?

How Might An Anarcho-Capitalist Society Be Achieved?

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