“I think of myself as a conservative anarchist.”
You don’t often hear such things in a quiet New Haven bar, so I discretely started to eavesdrop and called for another beer. When asked to explain his startling claim, the man with the smart suit and short haircut replied, “It’s not order I am opposed to, it is order imposed by the state. The continued strength of the existing institutions of the church, family, community and corporations are the only thing that will make the fall of the state possible without society degenerating into chaos.” This “conservative anarchist” was clean cut and young; I took him to be another future i-banker or consultant. But in the course of the conversation with a scruffy young activist he addressed as Sven, it became clear that his concerns surpassed a desire for a nice apartment in Manhattan.
“Yes,” he said in response to a question I didn’t catch, “When the state begins to crumble under pressure from competition in what have previously been considered its most essential functions, I’m sure most people won’t even notice. They’ll have become accustomed to the idea that the state is a superfluous institution and that impedes progress.”
The conversation took a turn for the philosophical as I settled at an adjoining table to unobtrusively take notes. “I am a voluntaryist,” the man said, tripping slightly over the awkward term. “It tends to make people more open to discussion when I say that instead of ‘anarcho-capitalist.’” He was right, at the word “voluntary” the man’s long-haired friend nodded appreciatively, only to tense up again when the word “capitalism” appeared.
“But capitalism is force,” Sven spat out, “Just like we talked about at the Nader 2000 meeting. Big corporations have all the power in America; what we need is corporate responsibility.”
Taking a sip of his drink in slightly weary manner, the anarchist responded, “You’ve got is a fundamental misunderstanding of the notion of force. People talk about how big corporations have power they fail to understand that the extent to which businesses do have true coercive force is the extent to which they have the government on their side. This a problem of governments, not corporations.”
The Naderite is going ask about Microsoft, I thought to myself. They always do.
“But what about CNN?” he inquired to my surprise. “They only tell us whatever serves corporate interests. How can you say that I’m not being exploited when my access to news is tainted by profit-seeking?”
“Change the channel.”
“You are missing the point—all of the media is like that!”
“Has anyone ever held a gun to your head and threatened to shoot you if you touched the remote? CNN is not force in the way that the government is force. You can get news online, from any number of less popular magazines (if you want to subscribe). CNN has no monopoly and you fear no retaliation if you choose not to watch CNN. The only way you interact with a business is if you choose to do so.”
“But big business and government are really no different!”
“Anywhere that the government has a monopoly, you are forced to patronize that monopoly. And when there is competition with the government, you have to pay double if you choose the other alternative because you still have to pay taxes. You are not allowed to say, no thanks I’ll just walk, so I won’t be paying the bit of my taxes that goes to roads, in the same way that you can choose not to buy a TV. And you’re not allowed to make philosophical objections to the practices of government in the form of boycott. If you’re pro-choice, and you oppose the fact that the owner of Domino’s Pizza gives money to pro-life causes, then you can go to Pizza Hut or Main Garden. If you are a pacifist and don’t like the fact that the US government uses your money to build weapons of mass destruction, you’re out of luck. If you don’t pay your taxes, someone with a warrant for your arrest will eventually come to your door and demand that you do. What the anarcho-syndicalist and the statist fail to understand is that it is not property that is theft, but taxation.”
At this point I ordered another beer. After this voluntary transaction had been negotiated, I turned back to the conversation and found the clean-cut anarchist facing down the accusation that he is “just like those whacked-out libertarians.” After confessing a shameful past as a libertarian, he began the story of his conversion.
“Libertarians advocate a limited state, but they are demanding an impossibility. It is not that they rely too heavily on rationality or goodness in human beings. They rely only on self-interest, a part of human psychology not likely change in the future. An anarcho-capitalist system rests on this assumption as well. However, while libertarians’ understanding of human nature is admirable, their understanding of the nature of the state is flawed. One central concept that they are missing is that there is no such thing as ‘the rule of laws and not of men.’ The idea of the ‘rule of law’ serves its purpose excellently, creating confidence that government is somehow non-arbitrary and thus validating the use of force, it is at base totally fictional. You can see the problem here in the fact that we have a Supreme Court with the power of judicial review. Laws require interpretation. This is true of all laws, but especially the most basic set, the Constitution. This means that though the final say may come from the Supreme Court, it has been known to change its mind precisely because it remains a political institution. Think about the talk that we have heard in relation to the recent election: ‘If Bush gets elected, he will most likely have the chance to appoint enough justices to get a conservative minority.’ And every judge has similar power or review.
“The only way to get laws that are even close to absolute is to have them cover every aspect of life, detail by detail. This is the proposal of communists and anarcho-syndicalists: Let the law say that every man has complete control over the life of every other man, so long as no one man has more power than any other. This is frightening, to say the least. Imagine your neighbor telling you that you were not allowed to have another child because it would not be good for the community. And to institute objective laws instead would yield so complex a code of laws they would be impossible to know and obey, not to mention enforce. From this springs the notion that it is in the nature of the state to grow, not shrink, and that even the most hopeful politicians in Washington aren’t optimistic about retaining the status quo, much less cutting government. The hope of reforming the system from the inside is a lost cause.”
“So what is your plan?” asked Sven the socialist, with the look of a man watching a snake about to strike, fascinated and repelled at the same time. “Surely you can’t want revolution and retain your claim to conservative anarchism?”
“My revolution will be televised. And it won’t be the 5 o’clock headline news. It will be on Court TV and you can read about it in the Wall Street Journal. It will simply be a change in the way that people relate to each other, directly and justly rather than with government goons standing at the shoulder of the most manipulative. Rather than asking the state to reduce itself against its nature as libertarians do, or trying to smash the state outright as anarcho-syndicalists do, I want instead for the state to vanish because it has become irrelevant, to wither on the vine…”
But before he had the chance to go on, Sven stood, exclaimed, “I’m late for an ISO meeting!” and departed abruptly. The voluntaryist sat quietly, smiling slightly to himself as he finished his drink. He paid his bill and got up to leave. On his way out the door, he approached by my table. I thought he was going to pass me by and then he stopped, removed my notebook from my hands, glanced over it in one sudden movement and said, “What are your politics?”
“I’m a libertarian,” I replied out of habit as he handed back the notebook.
“You’ll learn,” he said and then turned and walked out the door.
—Katherine Mangu-Ward, Editor-at-Large, is a junior in Timothy Dwight College.
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