The Fundamental Contradictions in Anarchism and Libertarianism

Mikhail Bakunin

This is a difficult conversation to have, especially because it is so laden with emotions and misperceptions. These are not detached, academic topics— these two ideologies are woven into the fabric of politics today. My discussion here, a product of years of research and comparative politics, is to try to explain in direct, nonrecondite terms, what lurks beneath anarchism and libertarianism, and most importantly, the fundamental contradictions that lie at the core of these ideologies that lead to their pernicious effects.

What We’re Talking About

I’m serious. I’m going to be blunt. Important topics deserve honest truths.

Anarchism. Some say it is a philosophy. In the broadest sense of the term, “philosophy,” yes, anarchism is something that can be expressed in language that sounds philosophical, but it can’t survive philosophical inquiry. That’s because anarchism is a rabble of emotional petulance elevated to an ideology that remains oblivious to what it means to be human.

Libertarianism is a philosophy, or at least, it can be. Libertarian philosophers such as Robert Nozick offer a clear and coherent argument. But it is a fallacious argument that can’t survive philosophical rigor. That’s because libertarianism is a child’s fantasy that attempts to deny reality.

For speaking these truths, I will be the target of hate mail from kids who’ve read a few pages of Bakunin and now pretend they know everything and from tech bros who’ve convinced themselves they could be über-rich if only the government would stop “oppressing” them. That’s fine. They’ve already stopped reading because their ideologies are too fragile to face facts and thinking.

For the rest of you, here are the fundamental contradictions in anarchism and libertarianism. Some material in this article is from my book, Left Wing, Right Wing, People, and Power.

The Anarchism Paradox

Anarchism hides under the gloss of being about freedom and self-governance. Anarchist apostle, Glenn Wallis, claims that the ideology is about order, equality, mutual support, and rejecting authoritarianism, oppression, and exploitation.[1] Sounds good, but these ideas are hardly unique to anarchism; indeed, all political philosophies outside of straight-up fascism extol those same goals.

Rejecting authoritarianism is the core tenet of anarchism. If they had a real-world understanding of authoritarianism they could offer a viable alternative to authoritarianism. Instead, anarchism makes a novice’s mistake of equating authoritarianism with any exercise of authority.

That’s the real core tenet of anarchism — the belief that there is no such thing as legitimate political authority. Thus, any claim to authority is tyrannical and wrong. Robert Paul Wolff, in his 1970 book, In Defense of Anarchism, proclaims this extreme view, one compatible with the views of past anarchists Bakunin, Bookchin, Kropotkin, and Proudhon.

We should be hard-headed realists in this — all of these anarchists condemn not tyranny but government itself and all forms thereof. It condemns order itself, social norms themselves. As Proudhon said, anarchism is a faith that the negation of government will create liberty, but he professes such a faith only out of ignorance because he has no understanding of liberty. It is a childish naivete.

There are certainly questions about what criteria would constitute legitimate authority, but the extreme view that nothing can legitimize authority is a reductio ad absurdum. That authority can be abused does not mean that all authority is abusive or that authority itself is tyrannical.

Another tenet of anarchism is the idea of local governance, that decision-making should belong to the governance unit closest to the decision. Yes, this idea contradicts their other declarations, but there is some merit to the basic idea, and anarchists propose it as the replacement for authoritarianism.

When an anarchist is confronted with the reality that local governance units can be coercive just like national governance units, the anarchist retreats to the idea of individual sovereignty. The only legitimate authority is the individual, anarchists say; thus, if local governance is perceived as coercive, the anarchist can simply refuse to comply. This last belief is expressed by all anarchist writers.

The Fundamental Contradiction in Anarchism

Obviously, the anarchists’ insistence on individual sovereignty puts the lie to their alleged belief in local governance. If all authority is illegitimate and only the individual has sovereignty to make decisions, then differences in levels or structures of government are meaningless. The individual is the only entity with legitimate power, and no one can legitimately question the individual’s decisions or actions.

Carl Schmitt, who was a straight-up fascist, correctly stated that the authoritarian dictator claims individual sovereignty that is an exception to the rule of law. The dictator has absolute power and is a law unto himself, Schmitt said — the law does not apply to the dictator. He saw such a power structure as a good for society. He thought Adolf Hitler, a sovereign exception to the law, was good for Germany. Being the dictator, Hitler could act free from all other authority — he was his own authority.

I won’t hold back on pointing out the parallels between Schmitt’s and anarchists’ ideas of sovereignty. Definitely, to be an anarchist is not to be a wannabe Hitler, but let’s be honest that both the fascist and the anarchist are claiming an individual exception to the rule of law. Alfredo M. Bonanno in The Anarchist Tension,[2] stated that being an anarchist means to “not come to agreements [or] make little daily compromises.” He goes on to say that anarchism is connecting thoughts and actions, but that always to be an anarchist is to think and act in exception to responsibility to other people. Bonanno’s views are consistent with those of other anarchist writers.

Thus, anarchism is the tyranny of the individual, the elevation of ethical solipsism to an alleged virtue. The fascists see one set of laws for them and one set of laws for those not like them, and the anarchists think there should be no rule of law, no legitimized authority. The difference is one of scale.

Anarchism neglects the need for accountability. Local decision-making is good, but without accountability to authority, decisions can’t be anything but arbitrary and can too easily be capricious. That anarchist says he wants freedom for himself. Well, who doesn’t want freedom? That’s easy to say, and simply demanding freedom is failing to grasp social realities.

Every person’s freedoms are necessarily limited by the reality that everyone lives within a world. The existence of other objects (you cannot walk through walls), biology and physics (you cannot fly by flapping your limbs), and especially other people who also inhabit the world (you all can’t have the same parking space at the same time) restrict your ability to act and thus your freedom to do as you please. In short, reality itself is the biggest constraint on your personal power.

We have developed laws, norms, and the wonderful behaviors of conversation and empathy to help us find ways of dealing with the natural, unavoidable limits on our freedoms and agree on ways of living together in our social world. It’s not always easy to take other people into consideration and recognize that respecting other people sometimes requires respecting authority and society’s laws and norms. To be human is to be part of a world that includes other humans, and humans are intelligent social animals who develop an interconnected web of social understandings and practices. Anarchists reject what it means to be human.

The fundamental contradiction in anarchism is that it claims freedom for oneself but is inherently a denial of the moral worth of others. What do I mean? Anarchists demand that nothing less than absolute freedom from all external authority is acceptable. This demand leads to the paradox that no one can appeal to any objective legal, moral, or rational principles to object to anyone’s actions. That means that you have no authority to object to abuse or coercion of any kind that takes away your freedom. This is what anarchists want, but fail to see that their demand for freedom from accountability puts themselves in greater than ever peril of abuse and coercion.

Not all laws are good, but a world of no laws is worse. Anarchists demand freedom, but reject the only means of achieving it. Though the reality is that anarchists only want freedom from accountability.

Libertarians worship a false idol. (Source: Piqsels)

Tearing Down the Libertarians’ Sacred Cow

Similar to their cousins, the anarchists, libertarians say they want freedom. Also like the anarchists, libertarians don’t know what freedom means, but with a different error.

“What’s the difference between an anarchist and a libertarian?” The libertarian wears more expensive clothes.

That’s an old joke, but with a grain of truth. Anarchists aspire to the appearance of tattered, gritty revolutionaries, and the libertarians aspire to the appearance of rich, successful businessmen. It’s all part of the stereotypes to which the respective groups aspire.

You have no doubt heard many right-wingers say that they want limited and smaller government. Well, if wanting less government is right-wing, then libertarianism, which calls for no government, is extreme right-wing.

Of course, the right wing in general is much more than being anti-government, but the right-wing trajectory of political libertarianism is fixated on demonizing government. Specifically, libertarians worship the sacred cow of freedom from government economic intervention.

The libertarian sacred cow is a talisman against the perceived evil of commercial activity being accountable. Conservatives favor less regulation of commerce and businesses. That’s because they correctly understand that needing to adhere to principles of responsibility to customers, suppliers, neighbors, and so on is an impediment to the unrestrained business activities that generate higher profit margins. Crime does pay if there are no legal mechanisms to hold criminals accountable. That’s the world that the libertarians want — that’s their sacred cow.

Robert Nozick’s Minarchism

Libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick provides arguably the strongest intellectual expression of libertarian ideology. Nozick advocates for the concept of a minimal state wherein there is minimal intervention from the state. He proposes an entitlement theory of justice in which a person who acquires property in accordance with the principle of justice is entitled to that property. [3] That person has the right to hold or transfer that property to another person. In the latter case, as long as the transfer is conducted in accordance with the principle of justice, the new property holder is entitled to that property.

Nozick’s argument is internally consistent, but what “in accordance with the principle of justice” means is debatable and easily interpreted in self-serving ways. Nozick’s interpretation is that justice means the individual’s right to all negative freedoms — to do as he wishes without any interference. He makes the extraordinary claim that any behavior is allowed as long as the individual pays market compensation for any damages caused to others.[4] Critics have pointed out that such a view favors those with greater financial resources. Nozick claims that acquisition of property creates an inviolable right of the individual to do whatever he or she wants with that property. He offers no means to correct abuses of property acquisition, only a vague suggestion that such abuses are wrong but wouldn’t happen in an ideal libertarian society.

Nozick arrives at a tamer version of Thomas Hobbes’s idea of the state of nature, but Nozick’s is made slightly less nasty and brutish by a “minarchist” state — a government with only minimal powers to enforce the law. He held that a state is preferable to anarchy (the absence of all government and normative order) in that it can protect individuals’ rights, by which he means property and financial rights.

Nozick’s book has been cemented into the foundation of libertarian political ideology. Nozick had said that the minarchist state was preferable to anarchy, but libertarianism generally prefers anarchy to the state. Libertarianism holds that individuals should have complete freedom to do whatever they want as long as they are not coercive toward others. However, most libertarians reject the idea of positive liberties (“people have a right to …”), concentrating instead on negative liberties (“the government has no right to interfere with me”). Thus, libertarianism rejects governmental regulation of business, and extremist anarchist elements within libertarianism demand the abolition of government.

One branch of libertarianism, anarcho-capitalism, states that corporations should be allowed to create their own private enforcement agencies to defend their property rights.[5] With no government oversight, power is concentrated in corporate entities. It is primarily on this issue that libertarianism differs from conservatism. They are both right-wing in the desire for a concentration of power, and they agree that power structures should favor a concentration of economic power in a business and landowning class. But whereas conservatives see government as a useful tool to this end, libertarians do not, believing, hoping, that the sheer force of concentrated power in the über-rich makes government unnecessary.

The Fundamental Contradiction in Libertarianism

True, some government directives are unreasonable and burdensome, and governments with too much power are tyrannical, but the libertarian desire for the elimination of government is irrational, knee-jerk reactionism. Nozick’s minarchism is a left-wing idea compared to the stateless anarcho-capitalism favored by tech bros and other wannabe tycoons.

The fundamental contradiction in libertarianism has two parts. Both parts contribute to the libertarian fantasy that the world will be better without government. The two parts of the fantasy come from two misunderstandings of how power operates.

First, libertarians fail to understand that tyranny always begins with the individual. Libertarians assume that government is the problem. But government didn’t fall from the sky. All governments are created by people and sustained by people. If a government is tyrannical, it is because people in government are propping up its tyrannical system that concentrates power into a few people.

By believing that governments, not people, are the source of tyranny, libertarians misunderstand commercial power relations. They end up being useful tools for nongovernmental powers to perpetuate tyranny.

For example, a corporation will threaten to move its place of business out of a state or country, taking jobs and investment with it, if the government doesn’t rescind certain laws. The libertarians respond with the demand that businesses should be free from government regulations — better for workers, they claim. The constant drumbeat of “freedom from regulations” never addresses the question of why completely unfettered and unaccountable corporations would become more benevolent toward workers, consumers, and communities. That the libertarians never consider that absurdity is itself an absurd contradiction.

Libertarians’ second misunderstanding is their belief that order comes about only through contracts among self-interested individuals. This belief comes from a misreading of Adam Smith’s assertion that commerce operates primarily through the self-interests of the people involved. There’s truth to Smith’s idea. The baker sells bread to make money and the purchaser gives money to the baker to have bread to eat. People’s self-interests are one motivation in their commercial activities.

Smith never intended that basic observation of human behavior to be the core principle of society. Nevertheless, libertarians have turned the principle of self-interest into religion. It’s a belief in the mystical power of self-interested individuals to create an ordered society — just add sunshine and chirping birds to the fantastical dream. The devil in this religion is the government — the evil state that interferes with people doing whatever they want. Salvation is a life free of the government and its regulations, by which is meant freedom from responsibility and accountability to other people. The utopian fantasies of Ayn Rand’s novels are extremist examples of this religion of concentrating power in the individual. Only one’s own self-interest matters — to hell with everyone else.

The reality is that people can only act freely when they possess the opportunity to act on their free will. Those opportunities are present when there are no coercive powers preventing individual actions (negative liberty) and individuals have the power to act (positive liberty).

Libertarians focus on negative liberty and assume that government is the coercive enemy of liberty. Governments can be coercive, but they aren’t the sole source of coercion. All power can be abused, and the greater the concentration of power, the greater the opportunities for abuses of power. The issue is the concentration of power, and government is not the only such concentration. There are many nongovernmental actors who prevent individuals from acting.

The belief that all will be well if we pin our hopes on contracts between individuals forgets that self-interested individuals need the power to create and execute contracts. That means much more than eliminating coercion. It means having a social world that ensures and even champions the positive liberties of individual people. Sadly, the libertarians are doing the opposite.

(Source: Piqsels)

Anarchism and Libertarianism as Antihumanisms

What we see in anarchism and libertarianism are two flavors of an ideology that is oblivious to what it means to be human and to live in a society. They each take a kernel of truth but distort it into an ideological perversion of freedom.

Anarchists and libertarians are correct in their intuition that the individual person is important and that more power needs to be given to the individual. They fail to understand how power works and how being a person works.

As children, we all went through feeling that it was ourselves against the world because the world and its forces and many rules were impediments to our naive, simplistic desires. We eventually grew up and learned that life is more complex, that there are reasons for rules, and that we have certain responsibilities within the world that exists beyond ourselves and our desires.

Anarchism and libertarianism are two flavors of an ideology still stuck in that feeling that children feel. It’s their desires against the world. Now, the child imagines, if only the world could be eliminated and with all of its rules, responsibilities, and accountabilities, the child will be happy. It is a childish fantasy.

Anarcho-libertarianism demands nothing less than absolute freedom from all external authority. The fundamental contradiction of this demand is that if such a state of absolute freedom is achieved, it will quickly devolve into everyone but the few being deprived of freedoms. Though, to be honest, perhaps that concentration of freedom and power in the few is the real aim of the anarcho-libertarians.

They don’t think it through, but we should. If the roads, hospitals, and police aren’t owned by legitimate political authorities, these things will become privately owned. Imagine what that state of imagined absolute freedom would really be. You may own your own house and car, but if you want to drive that car on the road outside of your house, the someone else who owns that road can prevent you from using it. Maybe that someone doesn’t like you; maybe that someone is out to extort you. Regardless, because that someone has the absolute freedom of anarcho-libertarianism, you are under that someone’s coercive power.

With no legitimate political authority, you have no recourse from the tyranny of the road owner. In this anarcho-libertarian world, you may now have the negative liberty of not being bothered by a government, but your freedom to act is trampled by a different external force, a force that is not bound by any objective legal, moral, or rational principles. Your ultimate freedom is therefore lowered. This is what anarchists and libertarians want.

What we need is a society that realistically understands that there is a balancing act among individual interests that creates a collective interest. Government can and should act as a referee like in a sports game. The referee does not touch the ball or act on the field of play but ensures that the players who do play by the rules. The rules create the field of play. Self-interested individuals have the most freedom when the involved parties have a level field of play and know what the economic rules are to ensure confidence in the game.

The “game” is life, a game we all must play. Anarcho-libertarians want to opt out of the game. That is their right, but only if they completely remove themselves from the field of play, which is society and humanity. They are free to go live in a cave somewhere and if they choose to do so, then as long as they aren’t bothering anyone else, no one should interfere with them. However, the anarcho-libertarians have no right to inflict their ideology or their religious zeal on others.

That, ironically, is the ultimate contraction of anarchism and libertarianism — they claim to be against tyranny and coercion but practice it on others if they try to force their ideas on society.

[1] Glenn Wallis. An Anarchist’s Manifesto. Warbler Press. 2020.

[2] Alfredo M. Bonanno. The Anarchist Tension. Self-published. Undated.

[3] Robert Nozick. Anarchy, State, and Utopia (Blackwell, 1974), 150.

[4] Nozick, 75.

[5] Murray Rothbard. For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto (Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2010).

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