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Are libertarians really just anarchists?
Political debates are often filled with ad hominem attacks, bold assertions with dubious intellectual merits, and commentary designed to evoke outrage.
Radical ideologies such as libertarianism are usually attacked for being anarchist like policies. While certain segments of the libertarian movement are receptive towards anarchism, not all libertarians are anarchists.
In fact the majority of libertarians would not consider themselves to be anarchists and try to distance themselves from the philosophy.
The differences between will be explained in the following sections to give readers an idea about how the libertarianism vs. anarchism debate plays out in contemporary political discussions.
Libertarianism vs. Anarchism
The difference between libertarian and anarchist thought is most apparent in the role of the state in society. While libertarians are skeptical of state involvement in private affairs, anarchists tend to have a wholesale antipathy towards the state.
There are many sects within the libertarian ideological umbrella. Even certain segments of it are known for championing anarchist beliefs. However, it is a bit of a stretch to consider these two philosophies to be political synonyms.
To understand the anarchism vs. libertarianism debate, one must look at the key points where anarchists and libertarians have disagreements on.
Anarchist: Anarchists are anti-war and view the activity as inherently destructive. They go even further than most limited government proponents. Due to their hostility towards the state, anarchists are of the opinion that defense functions could be assumed by non-state actors.
Anarcho-capitalists are comfortable with the idea of private enterprise embracing the role of national defense. For them, they see national defense as just any other service the market can provide.
Although left-anarchists oppose many of the wars Western countries have embarked on, they do not share the same pro-market bias towards national defense. In contrast to the advocates of anarcho-capitalism, left-wing anarchists generally favored local forms of self-defense units that are not constructed on the basis of a profit motive.
From the anarchist communism sub-sect to those who believe in capitalist anarchism, there is a broad consensus that current defense arrangements are flawed and immoral at best. Anarchists of all stripes can be counted on to oppose the current warfare state.
Libertarian: Libertarians are skeptical of an activist foreign policy. They only believe that military action should be used in response to direct attacks on American soil. However, they still believe a standing military is needed for basic defense purposes.
Like anything designed to protect life and property, the government is the only institution that is capable of upholding this function. There is also a general skepticism of private entities assuming defense functions due to the fact that corporate interests may clash with the concept of state integrity..
Nature abhors a vacuum. When the state’s functions are gutted, private entities will make attempts to fill in the vacuum. Many minarchists fear that having competing defense could lead to warlord scenarios. In other words, competing defense entities could result in a massive internal destabilization.
Minarchists believe that the state should still maintain a monopoly on national defense functions. Obviously, defense bodies would still be held accountable through republican mechanisms and their powers will ultimately be checked by reform-minded politicians, journalists, voters, and issue advocacy groups.
Anarchist: Nearly all anarchists have issues with the current system of policing. Leftist anarchists view the current law enforcement apparatus as oppressive and a tool of the business class to oppress working class individuals of all backgrounds.
Community watches and other voluntary institutions at the local level are seen as viable alternatives to traditional policing models. Leftist anarchists are hesitant to embrace private companies running policing services as an alternative to state-run policing.
The right-wing anarchistic factions such as anarcho-capitalists do indeed have problems with law enforcement. Instead of framing the function of police as a conflict between economic classes, anarcho-capitalists view monopolized law enforcement as a vehicle to undermine property rights and as an immoral entity due to its taxpayer-funded nature.
The lack of a profit-and-loss system does not allow for police agencies to be held accountable for sub-par performances. Anarcho-capitalists would rather take a laissez-faire approach to the matter, whereby the free market would find a solution to traditional policing services.
Leftist anarchists would take exception with some of anarcho-capitalisms private alternatives to policing. There is a strong propensity among leftist anarchists to be anti-corporate. Nevertheless, the anti-authoritarian nature of the competing schools of anarchist thought leads to a general anti-state law enforcement consensus.
For the distinctive anarchist schools, the disagreements on law enforcement only arise with regards to how non-state policing organizations would look like. But the current managerial state, which is known for its heavy-handed police actions, is universally hated by anarchists.
Libertarian: The political philosophy of mainline libertarianism sustains that law enforcement is a legitimate function of government. This comports with the “nightwatchman state” that many limited government theorists such as Milton Friedman, Ayn Rand, and Robert Nozick pushed for.
In other words, the state’s role is minimal. The state only serves to protect people by providing them with the previously mentioned national defense, the police, and the courts. These institutions are designed to protect lawful citizens from violent behavior, theft, contract violations, and fraud.
Left-anarchism would be viewed as incompatible due to its lack of emphasis on solid property rights. Some libertarians may view anarchist systems as chaotic and potentially breeding grounds for total social mayhem. To solve this dilemma, a strong state, albeit with limited roles, is needed to provide a basic baseline of stability.
Anarchists: Left Anarchists generally opposed private forms of hierarchies, such as managerial relations in the corporate sector. For them, wage work is a form of oppression given how it discourages workers from managing their own affairs and keeps workers in sub-optimal employment situations.
The capitalist system is flawed according to leftist proponents of anarchy. In light of this, they believe that workers must retake control and compel employers to establish better work standards. As long as corporations are able to exploit the accumulation of capital, workers will be in a precarious economic state.
Libertarians: For libertarians, activity such as wage-labor is ethical, because employer-employee relations are ultimately voluntary decisions taken by free individuals. Workers and employees ultimately determine wage standards on a voluntary basis. If the worker doesn’t like the arrangement, he can leave and find other work.
Having the state intervene to set wage levels could cause economic dislocations and negatively impact workers, especially low-skilled workers who get priced out due to minimum wage standards. To solve the issue of lagging wages, libertarians argue that excessive taxation and regulation should be scrapped.
Nature of the State
Anarchist: Anarchists view the state in a negative light. Left-wing anarchists believe that the state serves to prop up politically-connected capitalist classes and perpetuate a number of injustices.
There is a libertarian socialist streak within this variant of anarchism that still believes in individual rights but views big business with a skeptical eye.
A number of left-wing proponents of anarchy made distinctions between governments and modern-day states. They believe that the differences between these institutions were quite significant and merited significant analysis.
Anarchist thinkers such as Peter Kropotkin made the case that governments are composed of institutions which would settle disputes, make rules, and create self-defense organizations. On the other hand, a state is a heavy-handed bureaucratic mechanism with monopoly control over the military and law enforcement.
Anarchists believe that the modern-day state excludes people from controlling military and policy institutions. Instead, they see these functions as instruments of the privileged political and corporate classes that are used to clamp down on regular working people.
Anarcho-capitalists take a slightly different approach to their anti-capitalist counterparts. They agree with their left-wing compatriots that the state is a coercive institution. In fact, some even see the state as an inherently evil institution. Its taxpayer-financed nature makes it a coercive apparatus in the view of anarcho-capitalists.
The anarcho-capitalist economist Murray Rothbard made the case for market alternatives to state functions. He created the political theory of anarcho-capitalism in response to state institutions which he believed were not only inefficient but conceived in an immoral manner.
Libertarian: The difference between libertarian and anarchist thought with regards to the state is quite significant. Indeed, libertarians are not blind cheerleaders of the state. In fact, libertarian theory tends to be reluctant to give such an institution vast amounts of power.
That said, libertarians concede that the state is a necessary evil and is the only entity capable of overseeing basic roles such as the adjudication of civil and criminal disputes, law enforcement, and national defense.
Any movement that strips the state of these functions could potentially lead to mass destabilization and an overall breakdown of the social order. A weak state would be incapable of defending individual freedoms and allow unruly mobs to transgress on people’s civil liberties.
What is a Libertarian?
Libertarianism represents the maximal expression of individual liberty. In this system, governments only exist to protect individual rights such as life, liberty, and property. Individual freedom is clearly put on a pedestal.
In accordance to popular parlance, libertarianism generally refers to a system of limited government. The government is only in charge of providing law enforcement, judicial services, and national defense. At its core, mainstream libertarianism is centered on protecting individual rights and private property.
Libertarians see the state’s role reduced to basic tasks of protecting property. They do not like any of the 20th century developments such as the welfare state, economic controls, and the push to centralize government
It’s no surprise that libertarianism is most popular in the United States, due to the strength of American individualism in the country’s political history and the Anglo-Saxon heritage that was largely brought over to the colonies. Libertarianism draws heavily from the Enlightenment era and classical liberal thought.
All told, libertarianism didn’t emerge in a vacuum. It’s the product of centuries of Western political thought that put individual liberty on a pedestal. The 20th century was when libertarianism gained intellectual and operational coherence. In sum, libertarianism pushed for the absence of coercion from the state.
How the Ideas of Liberty are Part of America’s Story
The American Revolution was arguably the most pro-liberty moment in American history. The Founding generation laid out a number of principles such as property rights, freedom of speech, and limited government that 20th century libertarians would embrace and expand upon.
A number of pro-free market figures such as Albertt Jay Nock, Garet Garrett, and John T. Flynn stood in opposition to the rise of statist and collectivist movements that surged during the New Deal era.
Libertarianism’s rise became even more pronounced during the Cold War with the growing threat of Marxism becoming more palpable as the Soviet Union challenged the U.S for world primacy. Soon advocacy of free markets, a minimal state, and individualism crept its way into the American Right.
However, by the 1970s, libertarianism took a more independent route as evidenced by the establishment of its very own political party. As the decades went by, the liberty movement started to become even more independent and diverse.
As of now, the philosophy of liberty counts on multiple strategies to advance its ideas — party politics, academia, general culture, and commercial ventures. What started out as a narrow political movement, is now a political ideology that is seriously discussed in academic and media circles.
What is an Anarchist?
Anarchism refers to a political philosophy which rejects coercive hierarchies. Contrary to popular perception, anarchism does not necessarily mean no governing structures. Instead, there would be local institutions that would assume the state’s traditional functions.
Anarchists generally propose that traditional state functions be replaced with systems of direct democracy. These include neighborhood and workplace assemblies that would handle local affairs without top-down state interference.
European Strains of Anarchism
Broadly speaking, anarchism refers to a doctrine that is hostile towards the existence of the State, which is a body that possesses a monopoly on force, and the hierarchies it generally promoted. Anarchism grew precipitously during the 19th century, with the strongest variants being the syndicalist and anarcho-communist doctrines.
Indeed there exist different anarchism traditions which reflect regional differences and cultural attitudes. For example, Europe’s anarchist traditions tend to be more left wing and anti-capitalist. This is most apparent with the line of thinking espoused by anarchist philosophers Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Mikhail Bakunin, and Peter Kropotkin.
The aforementioned figures came from societies that had rigid class structures. The latter two hailed from Russia which emancipated serfs in 1861 well after most European countries. These anarchists were more interested in property redistribution and other mechanisms to reduce inequality between the landed classes.
All told, Kropotkin’s anarchism became the predominant form of anarchism widely embraced throughout Europe. These anarchists maintained that capitalists take advantage of workers and landowners do the same to tenants.
To solve the problem of abolishing the state and capitalism, left-wing anarchists would be compelled to move towards syndicalism. Under the system of syndicalism, workers and peasants band together in collectives and communes to own the means of production.
European Anarchy in the Spanish Civil War
Left-wing anarchists received the most notoriety during the Spanish Civil War as members of the Republican faction. When a number of anarchists were able to set up a number of communes and collectives, many international observers became fascinated with Spain’s experiment in anarchy.
In these statelets, anarchists used coercive power to enforce their plan to abolish the use of money. Those who did not comply with this order, would be put to death. The controversial nature of Spanish anarchists’ administration of the areas they controlled caught the attention of both the Nationalists and Republican factions.
Both competing factions came to view these anarchists as a threat due to their willingness to reject all forms of traditional state authority. The Republicans would eventually be crushed by General Franciso Franco’s Nationalist faction. Nevertheless, the Spanish anarchist’s syndicalist vision would live on in future anarchist movements.
In sum, anarcho-leftists vigorously opposed liberalism and the concept of private property. Some anarcho-leftist sects were marxist in nature, but they had misgivings about using heavy-handed state action to achieve their vision.
How Americans Viewed a Stateless Society
Historically speaking, there has been a strong individualist anarchist streak within American politics.
Political theorist Lysander Spooner became renowned for his advocacy of individual anarchism during the 19th century. Although Spooner hailed from Massachusetts, he was a firm believer of secession and defended the South’s right to secede during the American Civil War.
Benjamin Tucker was one of the prominent individualist anarchists in America. Although he was no Marxist in terms of how far he would go towards using the state to implement his political proposals, Tucker still expressed his hostility towards the concepts of wage labor, intellectual property, and usury.
Other individual anarchists such as Albert Jay Nock acquired fame during the New Deal era by decrying the excessive economic interventions that the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt promoted. Nock’s works laid strong foundations for Cold War era radicals such as Murray Rothbard who had a visceral hatred for the state.
One difference that.Rothbard had with American individualist anarchists and European anarchists was that he was an unapologetic champion of capitalism. He added some intrigue to the anarchy vs libertarianism discussion by taking strong free market positions and viewing human commerce as a liberating force against the state.
Libertarian anarchists tend to take the logic of the libertarian ideology and extend it to the other facets of traditional government functions. This means that courts, national defense, and police services can be subject to privatization. From there, corporations and civil society organizations can be the institutions that assume these functions.
The anarcho-capitalist still maintains the overall framework of free markets and individual rights. Unlike leftist anarchism, pro-capitalist anarchists are not very hostile towards corporations. This makes libertarianism vs anarchy even more complicated, since there’s so much ideological diversity within this political philosophy.
Enter Libertarian Socialism
In 20th century America, individualist anarchism and libertarian socialism also took up the anarchist legacy, but combined it with uniquely American features. The latter had a champion in linguist Noam Chomsky and stood as an independent voice for leftist thought that challenged the prevailing capitalist order.
Chomsky’s brand of anarchy was more left-oriented and focused on attacking dominant corporate actors. Additionally, Chomsky fervently attacked the warfare state for its role in propping up the defense industry, which diverted resources from the working class and allocated them towards industries that specialize in human destruction.
Final Thoughts on Libertarianism vs. Anarchism
Anarchism’s radical philosophy should be treated seriously. It’s not just bomb-throwing for the sake of chaos. Anarchists have a detailed vision for what their ideal society looks like and the way they go about reaching it is not necessarily done through violence.
That said, it does still share differences with libertarian thought, which is often viewed as a related ideology. Libertarians are skeptical of government powers, but they simply don’t go as far as anarchists go in discrediting the concept of government. Libertarians still believe in a state, but with restrained functions.
Nonetheless, both philosophies appear radical in comparison to mainstream political currents, which favor a more active state in virtually all forms of human activity.
For some people, libertarianism vs. anarchism would be a much more fruitful political discussion. The current climate of political polarization does not allow for nuanced political discourse. Any discussion involving radical liberty or anarchy would most certainly be a breath of fresh air in our stale political environment that is filled with outrage politics and manufactured political theater.