Column: Why I’m not an anarchist

The Tree of Liberty

What is anarchism? Anarchism is the view that “… holds the state to be undesirable, unnecessary, or harmful, or, alternatively, as opposing authority or hierarchical organization in the conduct of human relations.” (Wikipedia)

There are many variants of anarchism. Sometimes, anarchism is packaged with capitalism as a view known as anarcho-capitalism. Other times anarchism is associated with some form of socialism (see the column by Brian Moen on Thursdays).

All of these variants, for a variety of reasons, tend to be skeptical of concentrations of power, especially in governments. In this way, anarchists share a similar attitude to many libertarians, who generally support reducing the state to a great extent, or even completely.

I want to distinguish myself from these views — while I think our government is now corrupt insofar as it violates our rights, I think government is good and important insofar as it protects our rights. Moreover, I think the size of government is inconsequential; what matters is whether it is fulfilling its proper purpose (which may require it to be large, or not).

We need government for a variety of reasons, but basically the case for government can be grasped by observing that in a state of anarchy, as Thomas Hobbes once keenly observed, life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” What he correctly identified is that without government to establish the rule of law, humans must rely on themselves to defend against the use of force. In a lawless society, humans cannot flourish. Who would plant a field, build a factory or design an iPhone if their security even in the next day were not guaranteed? It is inconceivable.

More fundamentally, as Ayn Rand wrote in her essay “The Nature of Government,” “Since man’s mind is his basic tool of survival, his means of gaining knowledge to guide his actions — the basic condition he requires is the freedom to think and to act according to his rational judgment.”

Humans, unlike the other animals or plants that rely on what is already available in their environment, need to produce goods to survive, by rearranging the material of nature to create artificial objects such as boats, skyscrapers, furniture and computers. In turn, this requires the use of reason — the advanced level of consciousness that allows us to use language, engage in science, think about causes and effects and have an abstract understanding of relationships between classes of objects in our world.

Society is supremely beneficial to us insofar as others are productive and rational and don’t expropriate our values or our lives. We benefit from a division of labor whereby different people produce different things and we can engage in trade.

But the benefits of living in society can only exist if that society is secure; a society where our rights can be violated at any moment, or our ability to use our reason independently and pursue our values and interests can be curtailed with impunity is not a society that can flourish.

Government, the institution that (ideally) primarily punishes those who violate our rights, is therefore a precondition for a flourishing, advanced society.

So much for opposing power in the hands of government. What about hierarchies, or concentrations of power more generally?

Well, it depends on what we mean. Some hierarchies, like the caste system in ancient India or the marginalization of black people caused by racism in the post-reconstruction South, were irrational and, to that extent, should be opposed. Other hierarchies result from the rational behavior of humans interacting in a social context: It is proper that the person that owns a business has more income than a new employee, and that an employee who has worked longer is less likely to be dismissed than one who has worked less, etc.

Sometimes, when people speak of the “accumulation of power” by individuals or institutions, they are guilty of equivocation. If power in this context means “the influence that one has over others,” then there is at least one crucial distinction worth making: economic power vs. political power.

Economic power is the power that capitalists in a free society have: the power of wealth, or capital. This just means that to the extent that they can persuade others (by offering them money or a job, for instance), capitalists can get people to do what they want them to.

Political power is the legal power to use force. Ideally, the government uses this power only against those who violate our rights, by putting them in jail or charging them fines. This is the kind of power, when used improperly, is a threat to our lives and our pursuit of happiness.

Once again, the essential problem is not where power as such is concentrated, or whether we have hierarchies, or how big the government is. The pertinent issue is our ability to pursue values and live the best possible lives we can; to do this, we need a proper, limited government.

TRISTAN DE LIÈGE can be found not being an anarchist at tflenaerts@ucdavis.edu.

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