Tactical Notes 032, How Radical Is Too Radical? Anarchism as a Practical Guide to Advancing Liberty (2011), Isaac M. Morehouse and Christopher J. Nelson

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How Radical Is Too Radical?  Anarchism as a Practical Guide to Advancing Liberty
Isaac M. Morehouse and Christopher J. Nelson

Tactical Notes No. 32
ISBN 978185637634
ISSN 0268-2923 (print)
ISSN 2042-2822 (online)

Isaac M. Morehouse works for the Institute for Humane Studies and writes and speaks on economic ideas, communication skills, and the philosophy of freedom.  He holds an MA in Austrian Economics from the University of Detroit Mercy, and a BA in political science and philosophy from Western Michigan University.  Christopher J. Nelson also works for the Institute for Humane Studies and holds an MA in European history from the Catholic University of America, in Washington, DC, and a BA in political science and history from UCLA.  The views expressed in this publication are those of its authors, and not necessarily those of the Institute for Humane Studies.



How much less?

Libertarians want less government.  Yet many libertarians think it is fruitless to dwell for any length of time on just how limited the state should be.  Even more libertarians dismiss the idea of anarchism – the ultimate limit on government – out of hand.  Not only does anarchism deserve a fair hearing on theoretical, practical, and moral grounds, but it deserves to be a serious part of strategic discussions if liberty is to be advanced at all.  Libertarians can disagree with statelessness as the best or logical direction of a free society, but they cannot afford to ignore it.  Right or wrong, the radical idea of anarchism is an incredibly valuable tool for advancing liberty and should not be dismissed.

Action versus Ideas

It is not uncommon to hear young libertarians say that though they love liberty, they aren’t the type to read books and talk about ideas.  They are doers.  A common complaint is that, while our ideas are right (individuals have rights, and markets produce better outcomes than planning), we just don’t know how to market them to outsiders or translate them in to action.  The emphasis is on marketing, messaging, and above all, acting.  There is almost a feeling of smug superiority about not reading books, and not being an intellectual.  Theorists are dismissed as irrelevant or mere ideologues.  Libertarians have won all the arguments.  The intellectual battle is settled.  Now we must act.

A major part of this ethos is a criticism of those who care not just about ideas, but radical ideas.  To be an ideas person is one thing; to spend time on the most radical, supposedly impractical ideas like anarchism is another.  Some see it as the worst kind of ivory tower self-indulgence.  Not only are anarchists focused on ideas rather than action, but they are focused on ideas that have no bearing on the actual state of the current world or any possible world.

Don’t Just Do Something, Think!

These popular views, that the ideas of liberty are set and fixed and that radical ideas have no legitimate place in public intellectual discourse, are not only incorrect, but dangerous.  The battle of ideas has not been won, and even if victory were at hand, intellectual victory is never permanent.  Moreover, the classical liberal intellectual tradition is not settled; there is always more work to be done.

Fundamentally, what the critics lack is a radical idea to direct their action, which they view as intellectually moderate but nonetheless urgent.  Ideas precede and are necessary for action.  Radical ideas are perhaps the most valuable of all.  Acting without a clear idea of what you are combating and what you are hoping to achieve is irresponsible and certainly reduces the likelihood of success.

In the discussion of libertarian social change, the radical idea of anarchism, a political philosophy supporting the total absence of the state, is at least as practical a guide to liberty as those offered by supporters of limited government.  Indeed, given how analytically unclear limited government really is (do we live under limited government now?); anarchy might be the only guide to liberty.

Criticisms and Rejoinders: Wishful Thinking on Whose Part?

Minarchists (libertarians who favor a minimal state) offer a variety of critiques of anarchism as a system of thought.  They argue that government is required to protect liberty: “If not for government, how would crime victims get justice?”  Others argue that government is simply required to generally maintain order: “If not for government, society would be chaos.”  Some even make the case that government exists to establish the framework within which spontaneous order emerges: “Without the visible hand of the state, how else would the invisible hand know what to do?”  Often critics – sometimes lazily, sometimes too pessimistically – rest their critique of anarchism on the view that government is simply inevitable: “Why cry over spilt milk when we can focus on ways to keep less milk on the table?”

When all else fails, critics of anarchism assert that we’ll never actually see a stateless society in our lifetime, if we see it at all.  After all, they say, can you think of any examples of anarchy actually working in practice?

Most of these criticisms fall apart when the questions are turned on minarchists.  After all, minarchy has to be at least as impracticable and far-fetched.  We have never seen an example of a limited government that stayed limited.  We have yet to witness a state that fully and consistently protects rights and does not usurp them or succumb to special interest power.  To picture a state that would limit itself and stay limited requires perhaps more imagination than envisioning an orderly world absent any state at all.  Anarchy may not be easy to obtain.  Minarchy is not either.  Liberty, it turns out, is not the norm.  That’s the very reason we have to fight for it.

Right or Wrong, Anarchism Is Important

Criticisms of anarchism are welcome and important.  They spark the kinds of discussions libertarians should have.  What is frustrating and unproductive, however, are not arguments against anarchism, but its preemptive dismissal.  Many minarchists simply dismiss the debate itself as irrelevant.  One obvious rejoinder is that, with the growth of the welfare/warfare state, how could the question be more relevant?  And if not now, then when?  And at whose choosing?

The important point, however, is that the minarchist versus anarchist debate isn’t just some abstract thing to ponder in dorm rooms or in online discussion forums, but rather a necessary, crucial, and exceedingly practical question to resolve.

Should government be seen as something to be perfected and tweaked, or as an irreparably flawed approach to problems of social coordination?  If there is a problem with government, what should be done?  These are big important questions, the answers to which not only inform our beliefs about liberty and society, but offer valuable insights in terms of strategy and action.

Ignore at Your Peril

Minarchism requires special arguments for government and against freedom.  Libertarianism is concerned about the augmentation of freedom in the world.  The practical application of that concern is anarchy.  To argue for anything less than anarchy requires a series of positive justifications of the state and implicitly a series of arguments against freedom.

When libertarians preemptively dismiss the anarchist position, they default to the minarchist position.  To explain why you’re not an anarchist is to then explain why liberty works or is right in some cases and why government works better in others.  Given such dissonance, is it any wonder that critics of liberty get confused when libertarians attack the growth of government?  Why attack as authoritarian an institution that minarchists defend on libertarian grounds?  If state control is what we are trying to move away from, minarchist arguments for the role of the state are backward-looking.

In a world of scarce resources, do we want to spend our time crafting arguments that justify the state in specific instances?  Are those the arguments that we want to define us, as defenders of the state?  Would we not be better served to focus on the perils of the state and the benefits of freedom, no matter how far down a radical path that may take us?

Not the End, but the Beginning

Confusingly to minarchists, anarchism is not the end of political society, but rather a means to an end – and the beginning of interesting libertarian questions.  Given the choice between whether or not to have the state, the answer is easy: No.  It’s unnecessary, harmful, and rests solely on force.  But questions concerning how to live one’s life and how society will operate without the state – those are harder to answer.  Such questions are not solely the domain of political philosophy, but rather the domain of ethics, reason, and history.

Dr Stephen Davies1 has defined two kinds of “progressivism”.  The first is a negative definition; a given set of bad institutions are something we must progress away from.  Where we will end up is unknown, except that we wish to keep moving away from what is known to be bad.  The second definition is a positive one; it establishes an end-point that we progress towards.  Attempts to define the perfect libertarian society – including attempts by minarchists to define where the state is needed – are essentially the latter type of progressivism.  We believe it is more productive to view the state as a poor way to order society and something to move away from.  Where the absence of coercion will lead in terms of alternative social institutions is yet unknown.

We can “look around” and see anarchism working everywhere.  Yet we don’t know exactly how society will look after the state.  We can’t predict exactly the ways in which private roads will emerge, or how individuals will adjudicate problems between themselves in every case.  But debates over minarchy and anarchy determine where libertarians stand on first steps toward removing what prevents those questions from being answered: to wit, the state.

Anarchism thus provides the libertarian an objective, a direction, a total alternative toward which all liberty discussions, activism, scholarship, and policy ought to lead.  Anarchism, considered on a political spectrum, then, is far to one side, defining the “middle” positions as those at least closer to total freedom than if mere libertarian minarchism were the most radical option.  The anarchist side is the side that eliminates the state, the greatest threat to liberty and the most formidable obstacle to conceiving of alternatives to it.

Fighting for What?

Absent a clear direction, it is difficult to effectively analyze policy proposals or strategies for advancing liberty.  If state coercion is not something we should unabashedly continue to move away from, what is?  Starting with a minarchist state as an end goal, instead of any state at all as a point to move away from, creates a confusing roadmap full of difficult decisions about lesser evils.  Progress away from the state and into a set of new institutions is clearer and more compelling than progress toward a constantly changing definition of a limited state.

Even if libertarians find anarchy unlikely or incorrect, it still offers a directional corrective.  It sees the state as an unwanted object in the rearview mirror; the end may be unknown, but the direction is clear.

Radical Ideas Are Practical

Some libertarians are frustrated by too much emphasis on ideas and what they see as a lack of action.  Some are bothered by discussions on radical ideas like anarchism.  Anarchy is a radical idea, and a sound one with myriad practical examples in the real world.  It is also a great guide on our path to liberty, as it keeps us focused on the fundamentals all the way there.  Minarchists have their critiques, which are welcome; anarchists have rejoinders.  But minarchists can’t categorically dismiss anarchism.  If they do, they do so at liberty’s peril.

Ideas matter.  Radical ideas matter.  We are not at a magical moment in history where the battle for ideas is won and now we must simply act.  Now more than ever, while calls to “action” are in the air, ideas do matter.  And if ideas matter, anarchism matters.  We must not ignore it as unrealistic or impolite.  We should engage it, understand it, and advocate it.  If what we seek is liberty, the idea of anarchism is the only path to its recovery.


Stephen Davies, ‘The Triumph of Classical Liberalism, Part 2’ [video file], LearnLiberty.com, 2006, retrieved 25th May 2011, http://www.learnliberty.org/content/decline-triumph-classical-liberalism-part-2.