Anarchism, Reason, and History
January 24, 2002
state have a right to exist? The question has been raised
anew by Professor Hans-Hermann Hoppe, in his book Democracy: The God
That Failed. He answers it with a resounding No.
Hoppe is only the latest thinker in the
tradition of philosophical anarchism. His mentor, the late Murray Rothbard, was
another. Both owe their ideas to a great but little-known nineteenth-century
American, Lysander Spooner.
Spooners position was simple. There is
a moral law, which in essence we all learn in early childhood, even before we know
our math tables. Basically it is this: Dont harm other people. The principle
is simple, even if its applications may occasionally be difficult.
From this, Spooner reasoned, it follows that
no state should exist. Nobody can claim the power to change the moral law or a
monopoly of the authority to enforce it. But the state claims the right to do both.
It tries to change the moral law by legislation, which is falsely thought to add to
the moral duties of its subjects; and it insists that only it may define, outlaw, and
The results of the states claims
include war, tyranny, slavery, and taxation. Human society would be better off
without the state.
The best argument for anarchism is the
twentieth century. One scholar, R.J. Rummel, calculates that states in that century
murdered about 177 million of their own subjects and that figure
doesnt even count international wars. Its inconceivable that private
criminals could kill that many. It would be interesting to know how much wealth
states have confiscated and wasted.
But could society exist without
the state? Is it a necessary evil of human existence? Can it even be a positive
Aristotle said that man is a political animal,
but his conception of the community, or polis, was very different from the
modern state. He thought the community should be small enough that its members
could all know each other. Sound like any state you know?
St. Augustine saw the state, along with
slavery, as a consequence of Original Sin. It could never be a good thing, but it was
inescapable for fallen men. But we may ask whether this is really so; in
Augustines day slavery seemed a necessary evil of social life, and a world
without slavery was hard to imagine. Nobody could remember, and few could
conceive, an economy without slaves.
Is it possible that we have likewise assumed
that the state is inevitable only because we are used to it, and can hardly imagine
a world without it? Just as the menial tasks once performed by slaves are now
distributed differently among free men, perhaps, as anarchists argue, the
functions of the state could be distributed among voluntary agencies.
The Renaissance philosopher Thomas Hobbes
thought that anarchy the state of nature would be
a war of all against all, making human life solitary, poor,
nasty, brutish, and short. His solution was the state, which would quell
quarrels among men. He didnt foresee that the state itself might aggravate
conflict and make social order far more miserable than anarchy could ever be.
Hobbess near-contemporary John Locke
offered a more attractive alternative: the limited state, which would have the
power to secure mens natural rights but would lack the power to violate
them. But such a state has never existed for long. Once a monopoly of power exists
at all, it tends to degenerate into tyranny; anarchists argue that this decline is
inevitable, because tyranny is inherent in the very nature of the state.
Oddly enough, the great conservative Edmund
Burke began his career with an anarchist tract, arguing that the state was
naturally and historically destructive of human society, life, and liberty. Later he
explained that hed intended his argument ironically, but many have doubted
this. His argument for anarchy was too powerful, passionate, and cogent to be a
joke. Later, as a professional politician, Burke seems to have come to terms with
the state, believing that no matter how bloody its origins, it could be tamed and
civilized, as in Europe, by the spirit of a gentleman, and the spirit of
religion. But even as he wrote, the old order he loved was already breaking
Whatever the truth is, the anarchists have
much reason on their side. And much history.