Are you really a libertarian/anarchist? Take two

29 August 2009 by Mike Gogulski
Posted in philosophy | 14 Comments »

Just under a week ago I announced here that I’ve dropped my preferences and declared myself an anarchist without adjectives. I then proposed a series of questions which one might entertain to determine whether one really ought or ought not consider oneself a libertarian/anarchist (the two terms being interchangeable in their best senses).

The response was staggering. 134 comments on a single blog post here is a record likely to stand for quite a while. The post also spawned an enormous (182 comments) reddit thread on /r/anarchism and a smaller (34 comments) one on /r/libertarian, plus an essay (with footnotes!) by Alex Peak and a point-by-point reply by b psycho of the Psychopolitik 2.0 blog.

I responded to b psycho on his post, but Alex’s site doesn’t allow commenting so I’ll follow up here on two things he wrote there.

First, Alex asks: “But what does it mean to say that private property might be ‘impossible’ in a free society?” Here, my wording was poor. A better formulation would have been to ask about one’s preferences regarding the proposition that private property wouldn’t exist in a free society. I missed the mark with my language, but stimulated the discussion I wanted to create anyway.

Capital by Karl Marx

I haven't read it either.

Alex then objects to my statement (in a comment) that property is a social construct, bringing in an argument regarding someone going and living off the land by themselves. I suggest that the isolated individual’s notions of property are irrelevant until he or she comes into contact with other human beings. It is only in interactions with other people that claims to property become worthy of consideration, and it is thereby a social process which determines what particular claims will be respected and which will not. Questions regarding Robinson’s property claims absent interactions with others simply vanish from relevance.

I’d now like to ask my dear readers a similar set of questions, again with the necessary caveats: the formulations of the questions also reflect my preferences, may be poorly worded, and are asked given the context that we can’t know what a free society looks like. Additionally, when I refer to “free societies”, I do not mean static, crystalline things never subject to change. Take the term, rather, as meaning “the early stages of a flexible, free society, subject to any number of changes going forward” if that makes you more comfortable.

Comrade Murray ripped Bob good for this one.

Comrade Murray ripped Bob good for this one.

  • If all things (except people and abandoned or never-owned things) are private property in a free society, do you prefer the state?
  • If free societies are such that states never arise from them, even if things are so awful that a minimal state might seem justified, do you prefer retaining the state against that risk?
  • If free societies are rife with beliefs and practices you condemn (domineering religion, poison culture, sexism, bigotry, racism), do you prefer the state?
  • If living in a free society means that more children than today are beaten, abused, indoctrinated or otherwise harmed, do you prefer the state?
  • If free societies are characterized by more crime, random violence and fraud than statist ones, not counting the crimes of states themselves, do you prefer the state?
  • If transitioning to a free society requires those you love to change big portions of their lives — in ways perhaps unimaginable now — do you prefer the state?
  • If mega-corporations along the Exxon-Lockheed-Monsanto model thrive in free societies, do you prefer the state?
  • If intellectual property (copyrights, patents, trademarks, etc.) is stronger than today in a free society, do you prefer the state?
  • If wage labor, profit, rent and interest are common and desired by many in free societies, do you prefer the state?
  • If pollution of any sort is worse in free societies, do you prefer the state?

I assert, of course without proof, that if you answer “yes” to any of these questions, you’re not really an anarchist. Or a libertarian.

Join the lively discussion by posting your objections, critiques, arguments, disputes and complaints below!

  1. 14 Responses to “Are you really a libertarian/anarchist? Take two”

  2. By MindlessAutomata on 29 August 2009

    I like this one even better, because you really hit at the heart of what anarchism is–not simply some basic political preference, but a moral position regarding force/coercion/imposed authority itself. That is, others’ wrongdoing does not justify imposition on any individual.

    I’ve frequently said that even while the state -may- keep certain criminal elements at bay (and it’d be rather dogmatic to assert the opposite when we have no alternative to compare to in all things) better than anarchy that fact does not grant the state moral authority.

    Anarchism is basically a belief about the justification and moral authority of imposed governance–with opposition to such.

  3. By Miko on 30 August 2009

    I don’t think that a couple of these questions make sense. For example, the state claims an ownership of all property (even if they offer limited title to individuals under certain conditions), and all of its related evil comes from this property claim. So, if “all things … are private property” you already have a state. As anarchists, we shouldn’t merely oppose a group calling itself a “state,” but rather oppose any group that acts like a state.

    Likewise, as intellectual property has no tangible existence, it can only exist through coercion (unless it’s protected solely through lack of access, say, via strong encryption or an online subscription component).

    I’ll accept the other questions, but if a free society naturally demands either of these two, we can only conclude that there really is no such thing as a free society.

  4. By Mike Gogulski on 30 August 2009

    @Miko: Thanks for coming around here, first of all. I really want to understand your positions.

    To reduce those to an unfortunate and probably unfair caricature, and recognizing that there is a definition of “property” here in dispute, may I ask you to clarify:

    So, if “all things … are private property” you already have a state.

    Am I acting like a “state” if I say you can’t use my toothbrush?

  5. By Bobby on 30 August 2009

    there is individual freedom or there is no freedom at all. Though some of these scenarios are highly undesirable on a personal level, I’m sure that, as you stated, the worst of these scenarios (if they persisted or were inflamed at all after the abolition of the state) would only continue during the early stages. I’m sure there are plenty of people who would step in to combat social injustices like child abuse or racism, but through voluntary means, whether they be boycotting, community pressure, or ostracism.

  6. By MerryMonk on 30 August 2009

    I call myself a libertarian…I answered NO to all the above questions and then I asked myself one more:

    IF you could live right now on a stateless geographic area according to libertarian/anarchist principles, would you do so?

    The answer I started to say was YES, of course, sign me up now! But the reality is that I, and most readers of this site have chosen (so far) is NO.

    I know of many easy, reasonable, stateless options right now that are available to me (and any other readers that desire a stateless home). Somalia, the ungoverned areas of Sudan and Uganda and the two thirds of our planet that are stateless oceans are all available right now, this second, with no government. There are many other areas around the globe where…if you can defend it….it is yours.

    Think about Somalia…it sounds like many areas are up for grabs…with no state, no property titles, and no government to stop a group of us from going there, setting up camp, and declaring “Here is freedom, here we will show the world how great a libertarian anarchist society really is”.

    Why does this (or some other migration of freedom loving people to a stateless area) not occur? Why am I telling my freedom loving principles to all that will listen….and not walking the walk after a lot of talking the talk? Why am I not writing this from my house in the Somali port city of Eyl while pirating/borrowing my pirate neighbor Awaale’s WiFi account?

    Am I really just a common hypocrite? How about you…. why are you are still living in a coercive state?

  7. By Brainpolice on 30 August 2009

    I’m not sure if I agree with the form of these questions in that they imply that if one has scruples about various issues, one must somehow support the state.

  8. By Winterset on 31 August 2009

    I still have no idea how trackbacks/pingbacks work so I’m going to post this here just in case. I’ve responded over at

  9. By Winterset on 31 August 2009


    As I discuss in my rather protracted response on my blog, having no formally acknowledged government is a long way from having no state. Somalia is most certainly governed. Everything I’ve read suggests it’s a totalitarian government by a bunch of thugs. Just because they’re not organized doesn’t mean they’re not a state. The same is true for the vast majority (by number) of “stateless areas” on this planet.

    The one area you mentioned which is actually stateless is the ocean. As far as why people aren’t “walking the walk” by setting up shop there, I have to say that’s a rather unfair comparison. The moon is equally free, as is Mars, but that doesn’t mean it’s feasible to move there. Try to tell some guy living on the streets of Omaha Nebraska that he can be completely out from under the gun of the government if he only moves to an area at least 20 miles offshore from California and you’ll get either laughed at or met with a blank stare. It’s really not significantly different for most people. Saying “why don’t you” isn’t fair unless you can also show how the person could do it, given currently available resources.

    Part of the problem with current states is that they curtail movement by limiting resources and that the alternatives require vast resources to be feasible. Given my current resources, it would do more damage to the movement for me to even try to move offshore than it does for me to stay here and preach to the rafters, even assuming I could which I highly doubt.

    Working towards something instead of doing it the impossible doesn’t make one hypocritical, it makes one human.


  10. By Joel Laramee on 2 September 2009

    I like where I think you’re going with this, Mike. It reminds me of the choice given to Dagne Taggart in Atlas Shrugged: stay here in “the valley”, or go back to “the world”. As far as I can make out (sorry if I’m spoiling for someone), she chooses to go back because she can’t let go of the physical achievements on the railroad, of herself and of her ancestor. Or maybe because she believes that it can’t be proved that all the good people are in the valley and none are left in “the world”.

    The phrase “born again” is beyond a cliche and a joke, now, but it actually refers to a powerful metaphysical concept, IMO. Until you let the “old self” truly die, the “new self” can’t come into being. I see this concept in your questions, because the free society requires a total commitment to the free society. If you want to hold onto “a little bit” of the state society, for any reason whatsoever, you are enabling the state’s continued existence, and preventing the coming of the free society.

    Couldn’t you summarize all the questions, in this one single question: “Do you truly want to be rid of the state, or is there a secret area in your heart, where in order to keep *one little thing* the same as it is today, you would ask for the state to remain?” I guess that’s kind of cheating– maybe it’s two questions.

  11. By commernie on 3 September 2009

    If slavery and serfdom are common and desired by many in free societies, do you prefer the state?

    The questions in the blog post are as ridiculous as this one.

  12. By Mike Gogulski on 3 September 2009

    @commernie: a society that features slavery and/or serfdom is not free, by definition. Fail.

  13. By Daniel Shorthouse on 6 September 2009

    Asking me if I would support liberty if liberty had results opposite of those which are among the reasons why I am a libertarian, is like asking me if I would still support liberty if 2 plus 2 equaled 5. I cannot imagine a world in which that could be the case, and cannot answer it. Likewise, I cannot concieve of a world in which liberty does not have desireable results. The question is therefore unanswerable.

  14. By brmerrick on 9 September 2009

    I think I agree with Daniel Shorthouse on this. I think even hypotheticals need to be based on what’s possible, in order to be useful questions. When you have a question like:

    If living in a free society means that more children than today are beaten, abused, indoctrinated or otherwise harmed, do you prefer the state?

    …then first of all, most sensible people are going to drop any notion of not having a state. But secondly, the question itself is simply not possible. The only way it could be possible is if the threat of the state is what prevents more parents and caretakers from abusing children. If you take out the state, you remove compulsory schooling, the single most abusive thing (outside of regular beatings and sexual molestation) that can happen to a child. You also remove the numerous other ways that both children and adults are regularly abused. What sort of abuse will increase after abusive government is removed? The question doesn’t work. And I disagree that I am not a true anarchist if I say “No” to this question. (Although I can’t say “Yes” or “No” to a question I cannot comprehend.)

    Then with a question like the following:

    If free societies are characterized by more crime, random violence and fraud than statist ones, not counting the crimes of states themselves, do you prefer the state?

    I can only say that the question negates itself by saying that the crimes of the state are not included in a stateless society. Of course they’re not, because they don’t exist. Once you remove the state, you remove mass murder, the worst crime known to mankind. It’s another question that doesn’t make sense in any real-world application. Again, the vast majority of people don’t steal, and will seek out protection from those who do, by paying responsible people to protect them. Crime neither increases minimally for a short period of time, nor does it stay the same, if you remove the state, because the state commits the greatest crimes. The crime level has to come down, because the worst criminal enterprise no longer exists.

    The reason I am an anarchist is because the state is criminal, and there is no conceivable institution or group of people out there that could ever match its criminality. IF THERE WERE SUCH AN ENTITY, I WOULD OBJECT TO IT MORE THAN THE STATE. It is not possible, hence to create a hypothetical situation where it IS possible is to hypothetically suggest that anarchy is a bad idea, which, in my opinion, is also not possible. So let me propose a question:

    If living in a free society means that someone will stick pins in your eyes for eternity so that everyone else can be free, do you support the state?

    My reply: Yes. But my reply, like my made-up question, is pointless.

  15. By brmerrick on 9 September 2009

    And I disagree that I am not a true anarchist if I say “No” to this question. (Although I can’t say “Yes” or “No” to a question I cannot comprehend.)

    Sorry. That should read, “And I disagree that I am not a true anarchist if I say “YES” to this question.” My mistake.

    To sum up my views more succinctly, if there is an entity or force out there in the world that is MORE oppressive, violent, and/or abusive than the state, then as anarchists, we’ve all been barking up the wrong tree. I am anti-oppression, anti-violence, and anti-abuse. This is why I’m an anarchist. Whatever causes the above must be removed from humanity, and it must be done peacefully, truthfully, and willingly with love. Anarchy.

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