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Libertarians or Anarchists?
11/8/2001

A few weeks ago, I received word from the Cato Institute that they would be presenting a City Seminar in Houston on October 26th. I have attended in the past, and I'm a Cato sponsor, so I was a good candidate for the $75-a-plate lunch. But, as I perused the brochure, I saw this item: 

12:30-2:00 p.m. P.J. O'Rourke-Luncheon Address

Why We Are Libertarians-Not Anarchists

H. L. Mencken Research Fellow, Cato Institute

Author, The CEO of the Sofa, Atlantic Monthly Press 

Seeing as how I am at once an anarchist and a libertarian, this puzzled me. I wrote to Tom Palmer (Senior Fellow of the Cato Institute and anarchist) and asked him whether O'Rourke would be arguing that anarchists are not libertarians. He didn't know what the speech contained, but wrote: 

The term anarchist means to most people someone who opposes order or the existence of institutions to secure it.  Most people (actually, almost all people who have heard the word) think that it means attacking institutions of law, as in the self-described anarchists who smash bank windows and burn cars while protesting "globalization."  You can stipulate a different definition if you prefer, but that does not mean that others will share it. 

So, I turned to my dictionary (American Heritage, 2nd College Edition, 1991), which yielded the following: 

anarchism 1. the theory that all forms of government are oppressive and undesirable and should be abolished 2. active resistance and terrorism against the state, as used by some anarchists 3. rejection of all forms of coercive control and authority 

The dictionary I have does not conflate "anarchy" and "chaos" as Palmer suggests. And, it must be noted that dictionary publishers, in deciding how to word their entries, strive to strike a balance between "faithfully record[ing] our language" and "add[ing] ... guidance [for] grace and precision" (quotes from my dictionary's introduction). Indeed, students of social science recognize that language is a prime example of spontaneous, unplanned order. Each person uses words in his own way, to express the thoughts he wishes to express. In so doing, words come to have an accepted meaning, and so we have the classic "result of human action, but not of human design" (Adam Ferguson). Like a price on a market, the meaning of a word is influenced by participating individuals, but defined by no individual person: they are social phenomena. 

So, even though one might like to quibble over what anarchy means, I am much more inclined to accept a dictionary definition over the claim of Dr. Palmer. 

For further confirmation, I posted the question to a discussion list composed of libertarian-leaning intellectuals. The professors of philosophy and political science, with one voice, agreed that the term "anarchy" is what the dictionary claims it to be, and not that of Dr. Palmer's. Those in agreement included Dr. Aeon Skoble, Dr. Jan Narveson, Dr. Mark LeBar, and Dr. Daniel Schmutter. 

*  *  * 

A Matter of Strategy 

In a follow-up, Dr. Palmer related another concern in his email. He wrote: 

Your remarks are well put and you raise some important issues.  I do remain of the opinion, however, that the word anarchism is not useful for communicating what I (or you) believe.  It's not simply a marketing issue, but rather a question of how the term is used by most people.  If it means disorder and chaos and violence when used by 99% of English speakers, then it's not a useful word to describe what I favor. 

It may indeed be true that for certain audiences, and perhaps for the vast majority of potential audiences, the term "anarchism" though proper and correct, will immediately be conflated in the mind of the listener with "chaos". (But, we should always keep in mind Michael Cloud's aphorism, "there are no poor listeners, only poor speakers". All people are persuadable, because they are rational -- the persuasive approach is the key, but alas, there is no magic bullet.) 

But if "anarchism" is not a useful term, then just refrain from its use. Libertarians have long known that the use of "liberal" as a descriptor for their ideology in modern North America causes at least confusion, and often turns off the ears of potential conservative listeners. There is a time and place for using the term "liberal" or "liberalism"; but, when it does not fit, it is counterproductive to rail against "liberals". Libertarians are liberals, properly conceived. Hayek and Mises used the term liberally in their writings (no pun intended), as have modern libertarians such as Randy Barnett. 

By denouncing "anarchism" in a straw-man setup, libertarians further tarnish the image of an imminently useful descriptive term. Such a rhetorical move is not conducive to long-term success. 

If the term "anarchism" is simply lost, and cannot be reclaimed even over the long term, then one might as well give up on other viable, but troubled, terms in the libertarian tradition: liberal and liberalism (as noted above), equality, welfare, market, laissez-faire, capitalism, and, of course, libertarianism itself. Each of these terms have what I call "marketing problems" of greater or lesser degree. That is, they are perceived by some to have negative connotations. 

On of the charges of a libertarian think tank, I would think, would be to resuscitate and recapture ideological ground by proper usage of terms, so that they have a chance to gain market share. One of my favorite recent examples is this article on "equality." 

Also, see this very old article on "laissez-faire." 

*  *  *

Where Are We Going? 

The message became clearer as I read more of what Dr. Palmer wrote: 

Anyway, the Cato Institute is not issuing some kind of fatwa against people who use terms I don't approve. There is no sense of driving people out of a movement. But we do want to communicate with others [non-libertarians] about our values and why they're worthy of being held. And that means distinguishing between legitimate functions of government and illegitimate and defending limited government as a worthy goal. I agree with Milton Friedman on this issue; he and I might part company some day about the role of territorial monopoly in the provision of defense and law, but that's likely to be a long time hence. I am a strong advocate of defending limited constitutional government as an ideal worthy of striving for. 

Dr. Palmer is working for limited government. The future history that Dr. Palmer seems to be positing is a slow retreat of the size and scope of government with an eventual end of taxation and monopoly in the production of law. 

I am not so sure that this is a likely future history (since I know of no historical precedent), so let me suggest another, confined to the US. The federal government will continue to grow in size and scope until a particular geographic district decides that secession is a viable and preferable alternative. The size of the geographic unit that secedes, whether and to what extent it has a government, and the disposition of its sub-regions will depend on the very heart of the minarchist-anarchist debate (hold that thought). Other units will also secede, perhaps in unison, so that they have a greater chance of success. 

Historical precedent seems to exist for this pattern. The most recent local occurrences were the American Revolution and the (failed) secession of the CSA from the United States of America. In my parts, we still remember the secession of Texas from Mexico, and Texas's allegiance to the CSA in the War for Southern Independence. After all, it's called "Six Flags" because six flags have flown over Texas. 

Now, what of the minarchist-anarchist debate? If, at the time of secession, non-coercive social institutions are in place to handle segments of the production of defense, law, charity for the poor, and other real and perceived social problems, there will be less likelihood that coercive regimes will succeed in foisting themselves upon the geographical unit or its sub-regions. And, so, positive work on the production of defense, policing, and law are an important front on which to fight. I hold out hopes for my own hometown, The Woodlands, Texas, as a potential geographical unit or sub-region in such a secession. I have just launched an effort to found a private policing and insurance/restitution company along a Bensonian model to that end. Such secession might be 50 to 100 years away, but putting institutions in place now will do two things: halt or retard the encroachment of government into that sector, and prepare for complete ejection of government from that sphere in the future. 

Also, ideological groundwork must be in place to support secession. Not only the status of the word and concept, but anti-taxation arguments must be in wide circulation -- at least the idea of justified opposition to an unjust tax. Rothbard, Hoppe, and de Jasay are the modern equivalents of Locke, Cato, and Sidney. Websites such as ASC, LRC, and antiwar.com are the modern equivalents of Paine and Rush. We desperately need the modern equivalent of Wilkes. Ron Paul doesn’t quite fit the bill. 

-------------------------- 

The Role of the Cato Institute 

I regard the work of the Cato Institute to be good, since their work provides ideological defense for keeping down the growth of government. I even hold out hope on particular issues, such as partial privatization of social security accounts. However, I think that the Cato Institute's long-term worth will be shown as a defensive front, retarding the growth of government, not scaling it back. I think history will show Cato to be an important hero of keeping Leviathan at bay in preparation for the next revolution. 

But, the rearguard work of the Cato Institute should not hinder the positive work of establishing non-coercive institutions by continuing the statist lies that keep people enslaved. Taxation is theft, and Dr. Palmer knows it. He just seems to be unaware of just how many people share that view, and so he is afraid that he will be laughed from the stage. And, such may be true in Washington, D.C.; but, I have not found it to be true in Houston, Texas in my own experience. But enough with personal observations. 

Rasmussen Research poll number 1208 of September 7, 2000, given to a sample of likely voters in the 2000 Presidential election, question number 9 was: “Do you agree or disagree with this statement: we should end taxes. Pay for services with user fees.” Response: 36% Agree, 46%  Disagree, 18% Not sure. Accuracy is +/- 3% at a 95% confidence interval.  

That's a pretty clear case that a majority of people would embrace non-coercive institutions if they saw that such institutions deliver the goods (I assume the 18% unsure are mostly persuadable utilitarian-minded folks, or people who haven't really thought about it, or who don't really care -- hardly the type that will fight to keep government solutions in place). 

The success of such frontline work by folks like the Independent Institute and Mises Institute is also a tribute to this optimistic outlook. Both of these institutions feature anarchists in prominent articles, books, and policy papers. David Friedman graces p. 3 of the most recent issue of The Indepedent, and the Independent Institute has published books by the likes of Wendy McElroy, Bruce Benson, and Tibor Machan. The Mises Institute is the stomping ground for the likes of Hans-Hermann Hoppe, Walter Block, and Thomas DiLorenzo; and does much good work. 

All in all, it is clear that both Mises and Independent put their anarchist foot much farther forward than Cato. I am hopeful that Cato does not step on the toes of its (anarchist) libertarian brethren by perpetuating the illegitimate arguments for taxation and state monopolies. 

*  *  *

Yeah, But What Did O'Rourke Say? 

I have been unsuccessful in contacting O'Rourke about his speech, and finding out what he said. I am told by Christine Klein of Cato that the speech will be out on CatoAudio soon. I'm keeping my eyes peeled for it. 

Did O'Rourke conflate anarchy and chaos? 

Was the dictionary definition of anarchy even mentioned? 

Was the ghost of Rothbard laughing or crying?  I'll let you know...

November 8, 2001

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Gil Guillory is The Congressional Shadow (see http://www.guillory.org). By day, he is a mild-mannered chemical engineer at Kellogg Brown & Root, executing process design and project engineering for ammonia plants. By night, he fights the forces of statism as armchair economist, historian, and political critic. He is married and lives in The Woodlands, Texas with his wife Diana, daughter Winter, and dog Chutney.

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