The word anarchist is made up of the denying prefix a- or an-, the root archon,
meaning king or ruler, and the suffix -ist, referring to a proponent of a theory.
So the anarchist is someone who thinks there should be no ruler. This claim is not
identical with the claim that there should be no order, no authority relations, no rules,
no logic, or no sociality. However, because the word is sometimes used in these senses,
it inevitably causes some confusion. The subtitle of Gary Chartiers new book makes
perfectly clear what he means and what he does not mean: society is desirable, but
the state is not. For most people, the idea of society without the state is counterintuitive,
so it is important to make this distinction and to be able to explain it.
Libertarians and in general classical liberals basic approach to government runs
as follows. It is good for people to have liberty (a premise defended variously on
consequentialist, deontological, and teleological grounds). The statecentralized
political authorityis necessarily coercive and hence represents a negation of liberty.
Therefore, the state should be as small in scope as possible in order to allow the
maximum amount of libertyhence, the expression minimal state. For critics of this
approach to government, anarchism aims at a reductio ad absurdum: the libertarian
argument will inevitably lead one to the conclusion that there should be no state at all.
For a reductio to be effective, the conclusion has to be contradictory or at least selfevidently
silly. But what if its not silly to argue that there should be no state?
Anarchists accept the claim that the libertarian approach to thinking about the state
leads to the conclusion that the state is not justified, but they claim that this result is
not absurd. The anarchist ironically must defend this conclusion against both minimal-
state libertarians and nonlibertarian proponents of expansive states. Doing so
requires the anarchist to show that on balance the state exacerbates the problems it is
supposed to solve. Gary Chartier has put a great deal of thought into such problems
and does a thorough job of making this showing.
Chartier tells us at the outset that his book is not a narrowly academic work
in philosophy or economics or political science or history, though its informed by
the results of inquiry in all those disciplines (p. 2). Rather, he says, it is a call to action: not to more violence thats just the mirror image of the states own destructiveness,
but to the creative work of envisioning a new kind of society and beginning
to construct it here and now, right under the noses of the people in power (p. 2). It
is sensible for him to clarify at the beginning that the anarchism he supports is not the
anarchism of assassinations and bomb throwing. We have seen footage on television
of rioters who call themselves anarchists burning cars and smashing the windows of
Starbucks coffee shops. We all learn in school that President William McKinley was
shot by an anarchist. Yet these activists political positions are typically statist. Their
anarchism is at best a way to oppose a particular state in the hope of replacing it
with what by their lights would be a better state. Chartier is not duped by this facade,
and he works to make sure his readers are not. Violence cannot eliminate the state,
anyway. When King Louis XVI was killed, Robespierre assumed power. When President
McKinley was assassinated, another president assumed power. The states continued
existence does not depend on the particular holders of offices, but on the
peoples conviction that they need the state. So the real anarchists task is intellectual,
not violent: showing people that the state makes life worse.
Of course, some people recognize that the state causes problems, but they think
it is a necessary evil. Chartier must show not only that the state is a bad thing, but
also that it is not necessary, and he does so very well. The books six chapters proceed
through the main conceptual stumbling blocks. In chapter 1, he argues that the state
(in general, not any particular state) lacks legitimacy. In chapter 2, he shows that the
state is not necessary. In chapters 3, 4, and 5, he argues that the state creates problems
and makes existing problems worse. Chapter 6 is devoted to showing how a stateless
society would provide opportunities for people to explore diverse ways of living
fulfilled, flourishing lives (p. 3) and offers concrete suggestions for working nonviolently
toward a freer society. Although Chartier claims that the book is not intended
to be scholarly, he concludes it with an annotated bibliography of writings on anarchism
so that people who want to learn more about the arguments can do so.
Chartiers arguments are logically well structured and rhetorically effective. His
writing style is clear and straightforward. People with a background in philosophy or
economics will find the arguments interesting and not simplistic, yet any intelligent
lay reader will find the book accessible. He uses analogies and rhetorical questions to
good effect; he sometimes uses historical examples. He cuts through many of the
common (but weak) arguments used to defend the state. For example, following
John Locke, the authors of the Declaration of Independence claim that governments
derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. This idea undergirds one
notion of authority: if Smith and Jones enter into a consensual arrangement, even a
hierarchical one, it is legitimate. It violates neithers liberty because each agreed to it.
When I agree to board an airplane, I cede to the pilot the power to direct the flight.
When I agree to an employment contract, I give up my liberty to stay home and watch
TV all day. But do we consent to the government? Most people do not actually do so
(although immigrants who become naturalized citizens do), so statists argue that if a person continues to live in the area a particular government controls, his consent may
be assumed. As Chartier points out, people may want to stay put for many reasons,
and their doing so implies acceptance of the states authority only if weve already
established that the state actually has authority in the first place (p. 8).
The argument that the state is a necessary evil assumes that we need some kind
of order for society to work, which is true, and that social order cannot exist unless a
central authority imposes it, which is false. Readers of this journal will be familiar
with the notion of spontaneous order from the writings of F. A. Hayek. Without
getting overly technical, Chartier invokes this notion to demonstrate that we can
expect to establish the order on which sociality depends even without the state.
He cites real-world examples of social cooperation that have evolved naturally, such
as the development of international merchant law: as far back as the Middle Ages,
the growing class of international merchants realized that they needed to have a
reliable mechanism for resolving disputes that was not part of any one nations
governance system, and so a self-governing set of institutions evolved. Another
useful example he cites is that of the American West prior to 1885, where in the
absence of state-controlled legal institutions, mining and ranching communities
worked out their own institutions for recognizing property rights and for nonviolent
Having shown that the state is neither necessary nor legitimate, Chartier goes on
to explain why it is actually bad for people. In addition to its propensity for violating
liberties, Chartier points out that the state takes on powers that harm its supposed
beneficiaries. For example, some argue that we need the state to redistribute wealth
from elites to the poor. But, Chartier claims, the state is largely responsible for the
creation of these elites in the first placefor example, by granting monopoly rights to
particular firms or by shielding an established group of firms from competition. He
cites immigration restrictions, copyright law, occupational licensure, and control of
money, in addition to the explicit creation of monopolies and cartels. In a way, then,
Chartier says that the state is simultaneously robbing from ordinary people to create
elite groups and robbing from the well-off to give something back to the nonelites.
This cross-hauling causes a net destruction of wealth, besides enhancing and solidifying
the states powers.
Of course, states want to increase their power, and Chartier devotes a chapter to
one of the most destructive uses of state power: attacking other states. War making,
whether by overt conquest or mere intervention, has the effect of strengthening the
states power and simultaneously providing justification for the diminution of peoples
liberties. Chartier uses examples from U.S. wars not because he wants to minimize
the bloodshed caused by more tyrannical states, but precisely to highlight that
even a state ostensibly committed to liberal principles can engage in massive destruction
of life, liberty, and wealth when it waxes imperial. He also discusses metaphorical
wars, such as the war on drugs, and shows how they, too, inevitably lead to
violations of liberty on a massive scale (as well as to destruction of lives and wealth).
After five chapters of convincing argument that the state causes terrible problems
for no justifiable reason, Chartier concludes with what he calls his manifesto.
He believes we have the capability to move toward a freer world by taking certain
steps. Learn about these issues and discuss them with others. Work to change smallscale
institutions and create alternate institutions. Recognize that we cannot achieve
any real diversity and pluralism with top-down mandates, but only with our own
actions, and that we must lead bottom-up change by our own example. Engage in
litigation and even in political actions that support pro-liberty, antistate positions. In
his view, these actions can help to bring about a world without the state, a better
world, a world more free, more peaceful, more humane than the one we live in now
Buy The Conscience of an Anarchist: Why Its Time to Say Good-Bye to the State and Build a Free Society at Amazon.com for $17.95 (Paperback)
Volume 16 Number 3
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