The Contradiction in Anarchism

by Robert J. Bidinotto (
Copyright (C) 1994, Robert J. Bidinotto, All Rights Reserved

In his posting [to the Moderated Discussion of the Objectivist Philosophy mail list], T. Franklin Harris, Jr. writes:

Anarcho-capitalism is far from a "floating abstraction." It is founded on the principle of non-coercion (the state is seen as inherently coercive) which comes, in turn, from natural rights theory, which, as Rasmussen and Den Uyl note, makes up meta-normative principles necessary for human beings being complete moral agents.
In an earlier posting, he said that...
...the main anarcho-capitalist point is that a monopoly on the use of retaliatory force must also include a legal monopoly on the use of coercive force. Outlawing alternative protection services if such services respect individual rights must be itself an act of coercion and thus immoral.
If other protection agencies use force only for retaliatory and not coercive purposes, then outlawing such agencies would be coercive force.
Thus he proposed... question how a monopolistic government can be created that does not, by its very nature, violate the rights it is -- in the Objectivist view -- charged to protect...
In short:
Outlawing protection agencies that use only retaliatory force -- and thus, have not violated any rights -- is an act of coercion.

That's a pretty good restatement of the "anarcho-capitalist" argument, which was refined in the late '60s by Objectivist- influenced anarchists, such as Morris and Linda Tannehill, and the late Roy Childs (who later changed his mind). On its surface, it seems seductively simple:

  1. The initiation of coercion and force is immoral. (Rand)

  2. Government is an institution which maintains a legal monopoly on the retaliatory use of force in a given geographical area. (Rand)

  3. But to maintain a legal monopoly on the retaliatory use of force, a government must initiate coercive force to exclude competitors.

  4. Hence, to exist as a legal monopoly on the retaliatory use of force, a government must employ immoral means.

  5. Government is thus intrinsically immoral and self- contradictory.

  6. Hence, Ayn Rand's pro-government position contradicts her basic ethics (Roy Childs' argument in his early essay, "The Contradiction in Objectivism").
This argument is a splendid instance of rationalism: it proceeds deductively from a limited set of premises which are presumed to include all the relevant considerations. But in fact, they do not. Here is just a sampler of the contextual considerations omitted:

Exactly who determines what use of force is "initiatory" or "coercive," and what is "defensive" or "retaliatory"? By what process is that determination made? Or, to put it in terms of "rights": Who determines whether, in any given use of force, "rights" have been violated -- and thus, who is the aggressor, and who the victim? By what procedure? What theory or interpretation of "rights" is to be used? Rand's? Henry George's? Lenin's? For society, how are such determinations made with finality? And how is that verdict enforced? As a corollary: who determines which agency is a "protection agency," and which is a mere gang of aggressors? By what method and standard?

You see, anarchists sincerely believe that they are merely advocating "competition" in the protection of rights. In fact, what their position would necessitate is "competition" in defining what "rights" are.

What anarchists omit from their basic premises is a simple fact: conflicting philosophies will lead to conflicting interpretations of the meaning of such basic terms as "aggression," "self- defense," "property," "rights," "justice," and "liberty." Deducing away, syllogism after syllogism, from these mere words does not mean that the people employing them agree on their meaning, justification or implementation.

Without a philosophical consensus, "competing agencies" (driven to maximize profits by satisfying their paying customers) will offer opposing, rival social factions any interpretations each wants. Definitions of "rights" and "liberty" and "justice" will become as much a matter of "competition" as will the methods, personnel and procedures each agency will offer to provide. And which agency will attract the most customers? Of course, the one that "gets results" by best satisfying consumer demand: i.e., the one which can impose its own definitions of "aggression" and "self-defense" on competitors.

After all, would you hire an agency that couldn't adequately protect your own interpretation of your rights? Consider the justly-maligned profession of defense attorneys. They'll defend any client for a buck, using any argument, any tactic to boost their chances of winning, truth be damned. (When people today say, "I need a good lawyer," do they mean "I need a pillar of integrity" -- or do they mean instead: "I need a guy who can win for me"?) Would anyone argue that it is merely the fact of "government courts" that make these shysters possible? Don't you suppose that they would find similar employment in a totally privatized system, in which the "sovereign consumer" reigns?

Then why limit such amoral, anything-to-win behavior only to attorneys? Isn't it reasonable to assume the same motives would govern at least a significant portion of "protective agents"?

Today, a "legal monopoly" exists to put shady private detectives and private extortionists behind bars. It serves as a final arbiter on the use of force in society. We all agree it does a less-than-exemplary job much of the time; but it's there. What happens when it isn't? Or worse: when the shady detective or extortionist has replaced it, in a marketplace where profits depend on satisfying the subjective desires of emotional clients?

Anarchists say this scenario is unrealistically pessimistic: it assumes people are going to want to do the wrong thing. In fact, people "naturally" seek their rational self-interest, they declare, once government is out of the way. They would try to cooperate, work things out.

Well, if they did, why would they need any agency -- governmental or private? Why wouldn't five billion people naturally cooperate on this planet without any legal or institutional framework to resolve disputes?

The problem, of course, is everyone disagrees about what his rational self-interest is. Ask the Palestinians and the Israelis to define "rights," "force," "property," "justice," "self-defense," and "protection." Or ask the IRA and the British. Or George III and George Washington.

So, how do we best limit the capricious use of force by those millions whom we call "the public"? Let's compare anarcho- capitalism with limited government.

Under anarcho-capitalism, "the public" is called "the market," and "votes with its dollars" to have its way about the use of force in society. In a political system (i.e., under a "monopolistic government"), "the public" is called a "political constituency," and votes with ballots in order to have its way about the use of force in society.

But in the latter case, if the government has been constitutionally limited, the masses are typically thwarted in having their way at the expense of others. They can't use force to do anything they want. As private criminals, their acts are limited by the government. And government agents themselves are limited by the Constitution. Our Founders were geniuses at limiting power. It's taken lovers of coercion over 200 years to subvert our Founder's system to its current state; and still, our system is far from being totalitarian.

In the market, by contrast, what's to stop thugs, and by what standard? Surely no private company would deliberately handcuff itself, with separations and divisions of powers, and checks and balances. Such silly, inefficient "gridlock" and "red tape" would only make it less competitive. No, a competitive company must be flexible to respond to shifting "market demand." That means the demand for whatever consumers may want, anything at all. It can't tie its own hands by limiting itself. After all, some other company or industry would always be willing to operate without such moral self-limitation. What firm would restrain itself, when the sleazy, unscrupulous Acme Protective Service across town is just itching for the same customer contracts, and willing to promise clients "no limits?"

Anarchists proclaim faith that in the marketplace, all the "protection" companies would rationally work everything out. All companies in the private sector, they assert, have a vested interest in peace. Their reputations and profits, you see, rest on the need for mutual cooperation, not violence.

Oh? What about a reputation for customer satisfaction -- and the profits that go with getting results? I guess anarchists have no experience in the private sector with shyster lawyers, protection rackets, software pirates and the like. Aren't they, too, responding to market demand?

If the "demand" for peace is paramount, please explain the bloody history of the world.

Anarcho-capitalists forget their own Austrian economics. It was Von Mises who described the marketplace as the ultimate democracy, where "sovereign consumers voted with their dollars" to fulfill their desires. Not necessarily good desires, mind you: just "desires." Whatever they happened to be. The market was itself amoral: it simply satisfied the desires of the greatest number. (That's why Howard Stern sells better than Isaac Stern.)

In other words, the market, like water, can't rise higher than its source. And its source is the people -- the same people who vote in a representative political system. The marketplace is no more moral than the people who are "voting with their dollars." If there's a demand, some supplier will always come along to fill it -- a demand for anything from chocolates to child prostitutes. What "market mechanism" would arise to distinguish between the two -- and by what right and standard would it enforce such distinctions?

* * *

Anarchists think the "invisible hand" of the marketplace will work in the place of government. But read what Adam Smith had to say about businessmen in that famous "invisible hand" passage. Smith knew that government was a precondition of the market, and of the working of the "invisible hand." Without government, the "invisible hand" becomes a closed fist, wielded by the most powerful gang(s) to emerge. Why? Because government prevents competing forces from defining -- and enforcing -- their own private "interests" subjectively and arbitrarily.

Even if 99 percent of "protection agents" behave rationally, all you'd need is one "secessionist" outlaw agency, with it's own novel interpretation of "rights" and "justice," tailored to appeal to some "customer base" of bigots, religious fanatics, disgruntled blue collar workers or amoral tycoons with money to burn. Do anarchists care to argue that outlaw agencies -- given our current intellectual and philosophical "marketplace" -- would have no such constituencies? Dream on.

Oops -- did I say "outlaw?" Under anarchy, there is no final determiner of the law." There would be no final standard for settling disputes, e. g., a Constitution. That would be a "monopoly legal system," you see. That's because anarchists support the unilateral right of any individual or group to secede from a governing framework. (After all -- wrote anarchist Lysander Spooner a century ago -- I didn't sign the Constitution, did I?)

So whose laws, rules, definitions and interpretations are going to be final?

Consider the logical alternatives under anarcho-capitalism. Either...

1. No "protection agency" imposes or enforces any of its interpretations, standards, definitions, decisions or verdicts on any other competing agency, or on any individual acting as his own agent. In which case, there is no "final arbiter" of disputes, no court of final appeal, no enforceability. Everyone some agency deemed "guilty" of an improper initiation of force would retain a unilateral right to ignore the verdict of that agency, or to "secede" from any rule-making framework designed by that agency or any group of agencies.

From a practical standpoint, a "protection agency" which could not enforce retribution or restitution against a wrong-doer would be a paper tiger. Who would pay for such toothless "protection"? Who would stand to lose?

But who would stand to gain under this option? Only the thugs, who would unilaterally declare themselves immune from anyone's arrest, prosecution or punishment. Either as individuals or in gangs, they would use force, unconstrained by the self- limitations adopted by the "good" agencies.

In short, under this option, the good would unilaterally restrain themselves, while the bad would assume the right to use force without self-limitation, and with no fear of retaliation. This option would mean de facto pacifism by the moral, in the face of the immoral.

Now consider the only other option available under anarcho- capitalism:

2. Some enforcement framework must eventually arise and impose final verdicts on everyone. In practice, this would mean either (a) a dominant agency arises in the market, and enforces its interpretations and verdicts on everyone else, by brute force and coercion if necessary; or (b) a group of agencies decides to impose a mutually-agreed-upon framework on everyone. In short, a single legal system and final arbiter mechanism would arise by "market forces." (This utopian notion is endorsed by many anarchists, who concede that in the market there would likely arise a single legal framework.)

Alas, this does not resolve the anarchist's dilemma. In either 2(a) or (b), you have a de facto "legal monopoly" on the use of force -- the same "immoral" coercive situation for which anarchists denounce governments. Wouldn't 2(a) or (b) amount to "unlimited majority rule," or "might makes right"? In the final analysis, no one would be allowed to ignore or secede from the verdict imposed by the majority of agencies. If so, then what becomes of the alleged "right to ignore the state," the "right to secede," or the "right not to delegate away one's personal "right of retaliation"? Also, what becomes of the minority agencies which disagree with the majority -- or to any lone individual who is not represented by any agency? Where is "consumer sovereignty"?

In sum: Either you have no final arbiter to enforce verdicts, or you do.

If you have no final arbiter, your de facto pacifism gives society's thugs a carte blanche -- which means society will be run by brute force and thugs -- which is immoral.

If you do establish some final arbiter, with the power to enforce its verdicts against all "competitors," then you have -- voila! -- a final "legal monopoly" on the proper use of force... which anarchists declare to be immoral.

Anarchists can't evade this dilemma by making excursions to ancient Iceland or to science-fiction Utopias of the future. The fact that the Icelandic model didn't last, ought to tell us something about the viability of any science-fiction model of the future.

So, who would really rule the anarcho-capitalist utopia? The same guys who rule it now. They would be elevated by the same popular constituency that now elects them. The only difference would be is that under anarcho-capitalism, there'd be no institutional limits on their behavior.

In fact, every accusation anarchists raise against government would apply in spades against private "protection agencies."

The answer to unlimited government is not the "unlimited democracy" of the Misesian marketplace. Mises knew better (read his Bureaucracy). But anarchist rationalists, like Rothbard, haven't yet figured out that "force" is not just like any other good or service on the marketplace.

* * *

The anarcho-capitalist position against a "monopoly government" is, at root, a rejection of the idea of any final arbiter on the use of force in society. He calls that arbiter "coercive," because it does not allow one who disagrees with its final verdict, or its procedures, or its personnel, to exercise an unrestricted, unilateral "right" to secede from the process, or to impose his own subjective will.

Put another way: the anarcho-capitalist position amounts to the demand that one's own use of force be immune from the moral evaluation and response of others. It is a demand for the right to secede from the judgments of other people concerning the validity of one's own use of force. It is a denial that there is a basic need to subject any use of force to objective -- that is, socially demonstrable -- standards.

No, force isn't like any other "good": by its nature, it poses unique hazards to the lives, rights and well-being of the innocent. When someone uses force against another, it's rarely self-evident who is the victim, and who the victimizer -- who is attacking, and who is defending. Yet maintaining a functioning society requires that the rest of us determine who is at fault, so that our rights will be protected and justice maintained. Thus, force always must be subject to outside constraint -- and its use must be subjected to an impartial, objective, ex post facto process of social judgment. That's the purpose of laws, courts and public trials, i.e., of government.

The basic premise of anarcho-capitalism is false. There is no such thing as the "right" to employ force unilaterally -- then to remain immune from the requirement to publicly, objectively justify that use of force. No such right exists. So it is no "violation of rights" to require individuals to submit to an objective process to justify, publicly, their uses of force -- i.e., to submit to governmental authority.

That, incidentally, is why these corollaries also apply:

1. There is no such thing as a subjective "right of retaliation" -- i.e., an arbitrary, after-the-fact right to use force against a victimizer. (At least, not so long as there is an organized governmental alternative.) A key function of government is to subject the retaliatory use of force to the moral constraints of proportionality -- something no victim, in the heat of passion, can be relied upon to do. So while one retains a right of personal self-defense (meaning: the right to respond forcefully in immediate defense of one's life and values against aggression), after-the-fact forceful responses are illegitimate, and must be left to an objective, impartial agency. Why? Because society has no way of knowing if an individual's "retaliation" may actually be nothing more than rationalized or disguised aggression.

2. There is no such thing as the "right" to remain immune from court subpoena, pretrial arrest and/or detention, either.

Anarcho-capitalists have said that court subpoenas are an initiation of force against someone who is "presumed innocent," forcing him to attend a trial before he has been found guilty of anything. Some have argued, on the same grounds, that it is a violation of rights to arrest or detain a criminal suspect before his trial.

Let's leave aside the absurdity of trials without witnesses and defendants, or of accused murderers who, before trial, wave bye- bye to helpless anarcho-capitalist judges and book flights to Rio. Consider the conceptual issues.

The "legal presumption of innocence" is a formal aspect of a trial -- a legal status accorded anyone charged with an offense under the law. It is not the same as an assumption about the defendant's metaphysical status. It is only an epistemological presumption -- that is, a formal prerequisite to an objective, fact-finding procedure. It applies even to confessed criminals, or to those who commit crimes on national television (like President Reagan's would-be assassin). As a legal formality, it thus presupposes the validity of the legal system and the trial process itself. Hence, it is logically inconsistent to claim its protection as a formal legal status, while denying the validity of the very legal system from which that status arises.

The claimed "rights" of retaliation, and immunity from subpoena (or arrest), are simply declarations of immunity from any requirement to justify one's use of force to others. But there is NO "right" to immunity from evaluation -- not when the very issue being judged at trial is whether or not rights have been violated.

Society cannot remain agnostic about such events; it must decide them. No one can claim any right to ignore the demands of others that he submit to a process of objective, public evaluation. That is what government is all about. That's why it must serve as a final arbiter. And because we're not ghosts, but occupy space, that's also why it must impose those final verdicts over a defined geographical area.

3. Finally, the Constitution is not any sort of "contract" requiring anyone's signature -- because it's binding, not on the people, but on the government itself. It wasn't established to limit the people; it was established to limit government. It is a document setting up a system by which individual rights will be protected, even from government itself.

Lysander Spooner's critique of the Constitution thus attacks a straw man. With remarkably few inconsistencies, the Constitution didn't impose coercive demands on the citizens, or authorize the government to violate their rights. Rather, it ordered its own agents to protect the peoples' rights, while generally letting them free to go about their business. What's so intrinsically immoral and coercive about this? What requires personal signatures? (I credit this argument to my late friend, Sheldon Wasserman.)

Government does not inherently contradict actual individual rights. The only "contradictions" rest in the minds of those who want recognition of their personal liberty, while demolishing the only means of rationally determining when individual rights have been violated. Or for doing anything about it.

* * *

The whole point of a single, constitutionally limited government is to limit force and coercion -- by private parties, and by the government itself. Ayn Rand argued that government was a means of subjecting might to morality. That's not a mere social luxury; it's a basic requirement of human survival. In any society, human life and well-being mandates that there be a set of objective procedures to distinguish aggression from self-defense, and some way of imposing the final verdicts upon both victimizers and victims. It would be impossible for individuals to pursue self- interest within a social context if such determinations were never made -- or made arbitrarily -- or never enforced.

Yet that's what anarcho-capitalism would give us. It posits "competition" in the use of force, but more: "competition" in defining the rightful uses of force. To whom must these competing "protection agencies" ultimately answer? To what standard are their own actions and verdicts to be held? How can there be any, if a final arbiter (by definition, holding a legal monopoly on retaliatory force) is "inherently immoral," as Harris, Starr et al. argue?

Mr. Harris says that "Outlawing alternative protection services if such services respect individual rights must be itself an act of coercion and thus immoral." But whose definition of rights? Whose definition of coercion? Whose morality? It is not "protection," but precisely these definitions that anarcho- capitalists would leave to the Forces of Supply and Demand.

Hence the problem with the rationalistic argument for anarcho- capitalism begins with its opening premises: with the definitions of terms such as "force," "coercion," "rights," "liberty," "aggressor," "protection," "retaliation," "defense," etc. Anarchists simply deduce away from these concepts, which remain as floating abstractions in everyone's minds. We all think we mean the same things by them. But the contextual consideration omitted by the anarchists is that each of these terms acquires different meanings depending on the philosophy of the interpreter. And at last count, there are about 5.5 billion interpreters on our planet.

There's another problem with his statement. A limited government does not outlaw "protective services": witness private bodyguards, security firms, etc. To be more precise, government (1) regulates the use of force by others, including "protective agencies," and (2) serves as the final arbiter in disputes over the use of force. It is over these functions alone that truly limited government declares a monopoly, and does not allow "competition."

Anarcho-capitalists declare this coercive ban on "competition" is immoral. In truth, what the anarcho-capitalist objects to is not government, but the fact that gives rise to the need for one: the need for outside, impartial observers to objectively evaluate and control the uses of force in society.

In sum, what the anarcho-capitalist argument omits are the following vital contextual considerations that attend any use of force in society:

To let "the market" pick a final arbiter on the proper uses of force is to leave it to the majority of consumers, whose "sovereignty" regarding the employment of force is to be unlimited. Leaving it all to "the market" means: "to the whims of whichever individual or group has enough money to dominate those who don't." (Remember: this is competition over the meaning and use of force that we're talking about, not competition in the provision of widgets.)

It means, in practice, guns -- or enough cash to buy the gunmen. Can one imagine what "competing protection agencies" would do to non-conforming individuals in any geographic area dominated by, say, racist skinheads? by Marxists? by rabid fundamentalists?

You don't have to: watch the TV news. As some astute commentators have already suggested, we already have "anarcho-capitalism," replete with thriving "competing protection agencies" -- in Bosnia, Somalia, Beirut, Northern Ireland, South Africa and scores of other other anarcho-capitalist paradises -- including American inner cities.

Take the single issue of abortion. Each side is adamantly convinced that it is defending innocent life and inalienable rights against aggression and coercion. So, my anarchist friends, have your wish: let's remove our "monopoly government" from the picture. Let these factions "compete" in the "marketplace" for "protection." Let each proceed with its own definition and interpretation of "rights" and "force" and "aggression" and "coercion" and "murder." And let each, with moral intransigence, proceed to enforce its own verdicts, answerable to no higher authority. Bring on the market competition!

To reply, "Oh no, that's not what we mean," is simply to duck the issue: even anarchists, libertarians and free marketers can't define or agree upon what "we" mean. In an essay, "What Is Freedom For?", published in A Man of Principle: Essays in Honor of Hans F. Sennholz (Grove City College, 1992), I detailed how even self-styled libertarians were in hopeless disagreement over these basic, defining issues. E. g., "libertarians" cannot even agree on what the term "libertarian" means.

Within the "libertarian" universe we have Ron Paul (a strong anti-abortionist) vs. Wendy McElroy (a pro-choice feminist) vs. Russell Means (a Indian activist and former L. P. promenenti, with a penchant for shooting at the police) vs. the late libertarian Robert LeFevre (a pacifist who believed that theft transferred property rights to the thief, and that any retaliation or forcible self-defense violated the thief's "rights!"). We have had Ludwig von Mises, a utilitarian who endorsed both taxation and conscription, and Murray Rothbard, who denounces both. I have free-market friends who champion "animal rights," and others who champion environmentalism, while I've taken the opposite side in both cases.

Tell me, please: how do we get all these folks together when, under anarcho-capitalism, each would be writing checks to a different agency to enforce his own "sovereign" notions of "rights," "justice" and "liberty?"

And what would a "free" society look like? Polls of Libertarian Party members, of ISIL members, and of the readers of libertarian magazines show profound splits among "libertarians" over a wide range of issues, from abortion to immigration to drugs to foreign policy. For instance: Should kids be allowed free access and use of drugs? Should sex between adults and young children be allowed? Should kids be freed from the control of their parents, and should they be permitted to walk out at whim? If yes in each case, should parents who interfere be stopped -- by deadly force, if necessary?

Believe it or not, there are "free marketers" who answer "yes" to each question. Well, what is their status as minority thinkers under "anarcho-capitalism"? Since the majority is likely to find their views on "kids' rights" abhorrent, whose interpretation of "rights" will the majority of protection agencies be likely to enforce -- and against whom? Ah, you see, even anarcho-capitalism may not look at all like what some anarcho-capitalists envision. Given current cultural attitudes, in fact, it may be considerably more repressive than the status quo.

To bring this even closer to home, consider the heated debates over fundamental issues (like this one) that characterize this forum. [The forum referred to is an online discussion group, the Moderated Discussion of the Objectivist Philosophy mail list.] How many of you would trust all the other participants to interpret "rights" for you? Even the presumably "like-minded" people on this list can't seem to agree whether Detroit street gangs are merely sociopathic thugs (Bidinotto's view), or unfairly "vilified and scape-goated groups" (Tim Starr's apparent view...) -- whether they rob, beat and kill "because they like it" (Bidinotto's view, echoing Dirty Harry), or because the poor lads are rebellious, anti-state "heroes," reacting "defensively" to the fascistic forces behind the War on Drugs (libertarian Prof. Walter Block's view).

And if we brilliant, free-market luminaries can't agree on the philosophical source and interpretation of such basic concepts as "aggression" and "self-defense," then what about mere ordinary mortals? If even "we" can't agree on who's the aggressor and who's the victim, how can we expect the millions of Unwashed (who lack our clever intellectual insights and peerless moral integrity) to figure it all out?

Granted: there are many, many problems involved in limiting government to its proper role of being a protector rather than violator of individual rights. There are big problems in staffing and funding such an institution in ways that don't contradict its end. These problems arise largely because there is no social consensus over the philosophy to underpin government.

For the same reason, though, expecting today's voters -- who flirted with Ross and George, and then chose Billary -- to be magically be transformed into "rationally self-interested consumers" who, "voting with dollars," will create private "security" firms that will all perfectly understand and interpret "rights" and "liberty," implementing these principles in peaceful harmony, is not simply beyond belief; it is beneath belief.

Yes, creating and maintaining a truly limited government is a huge problem. But that problem is not solved by simply throwing all definitions and uses of force in society onto a free-market auction block.

So, to borrow from Patrick Henry: I know not what course others may take; but as for me, I'll take my chances trying to create or reform one agency, rather than a host of "competitors," each backed by the likes of The 700 Club, the Islamic Jihad, good-ol'- boy bigots, Detroit street thugs, South L. A. rioters, graying New Dealers, animal rights activists, welfare rights activists, LaRouchies, Greenies, the GOP, the Democrats, United We Stand, the NRA, the Black Muslims, Libertarians for Life, the Association of Libertarian Feminists, atheists, Christian Scientists and god only knows.

Has it ever occurred to those who would so eagerly wed the gun with the dollar, why Ayn Rand argued for a separation between Force and Economics?

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