The Difference Between Libertarianism and Anarchism

By Chris George

A New Kind of Mind

I typically describe myself as a “libertarian anarchist.” People who don’t understand what either word means will essentially assume that I’m doubly insane. Libertarian is a more friendly word; anarchist is generally perceived to be hostile. Libertarians are usually considered fringe; anarchists are usually considered dangerous. Yet some people, especially people who are libertarian or anarchists, view the words as essentially the same thing. Analytically speaking, it seems there should be a distinction even if the situation likens itself in many cases to a square being a rectangle, but rectangle not necessarily being a square.

Libertarianism is an ethical doctrine. It is concerned with rights. Most commonly this right is referred to as the right to self ownership which includes the right to the product of your labor. For some (probably most) libertarians, this is essentially a faith based, though not necessarily theological, concept. It is taken on faith that men are imbued with this right through nature or that that these rights are implied by the nature of truth, knowledge, existence, reason, etc. What is ironic about this faith based libertarian concept is that it is widely accepted on face value by most participants in modern (classical) liberal societies. It is conservative (not as in American Conservatives, but as in historically organized society) culture that refutes the idea of self ownership by subjecting the behavior of the individual to the enforced law of the moral majority. However, the concept of self ownership is thoroughly ignored by most in society even while they champion it as the bedrock of their modern culture of tolerance. This is because most of society is conservative and Rightist as opposed to liberal and Leftist. This betrayal of self ownership is implied by the aggression of the government that is condoned by the populace. Even commonplace policy positions in support of a state single payer health care system or a central bank or drug prohibition demonstrate the contempt the populace shows to the individual who libertarians argue should hold sole dominion over his own life. The popular opinion demonstrates a fondness for collective ownership of individuals – a collective slavery, if you will – that the scope of control over humanity extends past one’s own fingertips to some degree.

The other form of libertarianism holds that libertarianism is a desirable ethical standard because it results in the most beneficial outcomes. Consequentialists do not operate on faithful assumptions about the nature and rights of men. Their considerations are directed towards a scientific standard that observes and deduces that greater degrees of self ownership and liberty result in a flourishing of society in terms of wealth and culture. While not completely comfortable throwing myself into either category (since I do believe in Divinely granted human rights to self ownership), I probably fit best in the consequentialist camp.

The libertarian principle of non-aggression simply is a means of asserting the premise of self ownership. The non-aggression principle states that one may/should not use coercive physical force to violate the self ownership of any other person. The principle clearly understood merely asserts that all actions should be voluntarily untaken. Likewise, toleration is a key characteristic of libertarian ethics. Libertarians are not required to approve of the actions of others, but, so long as those actions are non-coercive, persuasion is the only ethical outlet for change. The use of force is illegitimate for libertarians. Only the initiation of such force justifies the use of force and only as retaliation. What is clear is that libertarians oppose government. Government is any actor, individual, or collective that negates the liberty of self ownership – any entity that claims control over another person or persons. Libertarians generally concede the necessity of institutions that may seek to prevent violations of liberty in advance through the use of defensive tactics. The purest and most cogent form of libertarianism is anarchistic because the existence of a State requires the involuntary submission to pay for the monopoly services of that State, an obvious violation of liberty.

Anarchism has nothing to do with rights or ethics. The concept of “philosophical anarchism” may, but that is very similar if not the same as libertarianism. Anarchism is a political concept that promotes ideas hostile to the State. The State can essentially be viewed as a self enforcing monopoly with power over a specified although possibly indefinite region. Because governing institutions are most effective at depriving individuals of liberty, they are well equipped to claim dominion over and submission to itself, while aiming to protect itself from competition. The most effective tool at the disposal of a State or a government that wishes to obtain or maintain Statehood is propaganda which to reinforce its Laws through pop justification. Statist institutions maintain their monopoly through force and through the repeated demonization of competing government and defensive services. Usually, States will seek to expand their role from just that of a governing body to one of greater scope ie education, health care, postal services, etc. States are emblematic and self-reinforced by their governing AND governed classes. In monarchy, a single person is put in charge of the lawmaking process. In oligarchy, a few people decide the laws. In aristocracy, the wealthy decide the laws. In a democracy, the law is decided by the majority of people. Anarchism is opposition to all of this. Fundamentally, anarchism is a strain of political anti-authoritarianism that regards the authority of the State governing class as illegitimate. Anarchists seek the abolition of the political State and its resultant law in lieu of a new order of organic law.

The confusion between anarchy and chaos is fair to a degree. With the abolition of the State, the law would be the natural outcome of community, market, and physical dominance. However, this does not distinguish it from the State at all. The society that approves the will of the State determines the legitimate scope of the State. Furthermore, the rule of the State is enforced strictly through physical dominance. In an anarchist society, one could act “anti-socially” to any degree he pleases and can get away with, but it is unlikely in civil society that he would last very long. The fear that these people would run rampant is unwarranted. The benefits of cooperation discourage “anti-social” behavior. The cooperative aspects of society have been learned and evolved into to deal with “anti-social” behavior. So, any man exposing the world to tyranny would not likely have long before voluntary and contractual coalitions of people were to fight back. Even if this were not the case, the pro-State assumption that “anti-social,” and in this sense I mean both malevolent and incompetent, people will not infiltrate the State apparatus is false. In fact, the opposite is true. The State apparatus, not existing on a competitive level to help ensure quality and customer satisfaction, involves the gradual usurpation of power by the “anti-social” (of course assuming the originators of the State were not themselves “anti-social”). The cohesive force in anarchist society is contract and cooperation for mutual benefit. In other words, anarchist society promotes the thriving of the market by leveling the playing field, increasing transparency, and reflecting the demands of society over State.

An interesting way to view the anarchist struggle is to envision a society of political ladders of power. Statist leaders attempt to climb these ladders to gain power and oversight. Anarchists shake the ladders and expose as phony the pretense under which Statists argue they had a right to become lawmakers instead of market participants in the first place. As the evolution of Statism takes hold and the justifications for it become more broad, the privilege of Statism extends to a larger base of people, starting as monarchist and culminating in democratic. Anarchists are there the entire time to shake the ladders and challenge the idea there should be ladders at all.

In summation, libertarians promote voluntary human interactions as morally imperative or advantageous. Anarchists oppose others holding dominion over them. Libertarianism is the liberation of all individuals from the authority of society. Anarchism is the liberation of self from (political) authority. A (pure) libertarian is an anarchist, but an anarchist is not necessarily a libertarian.

Next Up: Why I Am First and Foremost an Anarchist and Less of a Libertarian

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