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The Anarchist Conscience

Mises Daily: Friday, June 10, 2011 by

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[Transcribed from the Libertarian Tradition podcast episode "Gary Chartier: The Conscience of an Anarchist"]

If the libertarian tradition is going to endure and grow (in both size and influence), it's necessary for younger libertarians to do two things. First they need to familiarize themselves with that tradition. Second, and more fundamentally, they need to add to it. Enter Gary Chartier, Southern California law professor.

Chartier was born in Southern California in 1966. He grew up in Riverside County, out in the desert east of Los Angeles. And when he hit adolescence, around the early 1980s, his reading about political economy convinced him that he was a libertarian. "I was in many ways a fairly typical proto-libertarian of my generation," he wrote more than a quarter century later.

I grew up with Goldwaterite parents; I liked computers; I read science fiction; I was socially awkward; and I discovered the Libertarian Party (moving house recently, I chanced on flyers for the 1980 Ed Clark campaign …) and the option of acquiring libertarian books by mail order (perhaps what explains my receiving a 1984 form letter — something I also rediscovered recently — from Ron Paul asking that I support the fledgling Mises Institute).

Chartier recalls

looking through the small-print catalogue I'd requested from a libertarian bookseller and learning about the diverse array of stuff with which the libertarian world was filled. I'd already spent time with Volume II of Hayek's Law, Legislation, and Liberty (obtained via inter-library loan); now, I ordered Volume III — along with Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia and Rothbard's The Ethics of Liberty.

As Chartier remembers it,

these books weren't the first libertarian texts I'd read; perhaps a year or two before this, I'd spent time with Milton and Rose Friedman's Free to Choose. But I was delighted now to have a set of substantial libertarian books to read. Rothbard blew my mind; Nozick was a great intellectual workout, but by far the most difficult author I'd ever tried to read … and I started calling Hayek "my favorite economist" (a bit puzzlingly, since I didn't know many other economists, and what I'd read by Hayek wasn't economics but political theory). I acquired a copy of The Constitution of Liberty soon after. By the end of the summer after I graduated from high school, ignoring the sightseeing opportunities on a European trip, I'd finished Shea and Wilson's Illuminatus. And soon after I'd read Atlas Shrugged.

Chartier "never warmed to Rand's work," however; he reports today that

it didn't engage me emotionally, intellectually, and imaginatively as Shea and Wilson, Rothbard, and Hayek did. Looking back on my thinking in late adolescence, I'm struck by how much I imbibed from Rothbard, even as I disagreed with him about some things. I don't detect the same kind of influence on Rand's part.

Chartier's reading didn't stop now that he'd graduated from high school, however. He recalls now that

within the first four months of my first regular college quarter … I was still thinking libertarian thoughts: I'd been reading in and around multiple Rand books, including Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, Philosophy: Who Needs It?, An Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, and Anthem. I'd apparently even checked James J. Martin's Men against the State out of the university library. When I borrowed and read it in 2008, I discovered that the last person to check it out had been — me, in 1984.

Chartier's love affair with libertarianism was about to end, however. It didn't really survive his undergraduate years, before it foundered on the shoals of his compassion. (Back in those days there were no Bleeding Heart Libertarians.) As he wrote years later, his downfall "was a set of encounters with a number of authors, both Christian and secular … who placed great emphasis on negative responsibility … the notion that we are as responsible for events that occur as a result of our omissions (whether or not intended) as we are for events that occur as a result of our deliberate acts." It wasn't long before Chartier found himself confronting an impossible dilemma. "Given other things I believed," he wrote,

it seemed as if I was committed to believing that, when I failed to provide resources to a poor person anywhere in the world, I was responsible for any harm she or he underwent if the money I could have given her would likely have prevented [it]. Whenever someone died because I hadn't given her or him money, I was, on this view, a murderer. … I was overwhelmed at the thought that I was responsible for everyone, for everything, that any time I wanted to spend money on myself I would need to justify doing so in a way that made clear how the expenditure represented a net benefit to the world's poor. It's fair to say that this way of thinking was what pushed me over the edge into full-blown statism: if the state got involved in redistributing wealth from everyone, the problem could be put to an end: what I could never do on my own, the state could do. In any event, in a state committed to redistribution, responsibility would be shared, and I wouldn't have to bear an overwhelming burden of guilt.

Chartier finished up college, majoring in history and political science, then went on to do graduate work in Claremont, California, and Cambridge, England, winding up with a PhD in theology from Cambridge. Back in Southern California in the early '90s, he did a bit of adjunct teaching and served for a spell as editor of a small newspaper. He wrote scholarly articles for academic journals. He wrote newspaper editorials on public issues and controversies of the day. In all his writing at that time, he says now, he

took the authority of the state for granted. In retrospect, I find this odd: I certainly knew that standard liberal defenses of state authority were unsuccessful. Was I willing to treat state authority as rooted in some kind of sacred mandate? But my theological position certainly didn't allow for arbitrary divine fiats to empower kings or presidents?

It could be, Chartier speculates, that

I identified reflexively with members of the political class, assumed that what I was doing was designed to guide them, and simply treated the institutions they oversaw as givens because I had instinctively adopted their point of view and wanted to be one of them. I'm still not sure; I'm quite sure it was not because I'd given any serious thought to justifying state authority.

His confidence in state authority eroded rapidly in the first years of the new century, however, when he was finishing up his law degree at UCLA and George W. Bush was living in the White House. And by the time it had become clear that Barack Obama, whatever his campaign rhetoric might have seemed to imply, was in fact perfectly "happy," as Chartier puts it, "to be serving George W. Bush's third term" — well, by then, Chartier had long since concluded that he had been duped, or, perhaps, even, had duped himself. "I had opted for statism over anarchism without thinking clearly," he says today. "I had operated reflexively on the assumption that a stateless society wouldn't be able to solve the problems I believed the state could solve. Now, I realized both that a stateless society would be more creative than I had realized and that many of the problems that concerned me were in fact caused by the state."

So, after most of two decades as a statist, Gary Chartier is back among us. And, characteristically, he's putting himself forward for some of the most ambitious among the jobs that need doing. He's volunteering for the heavy lifting, you might say. He's young, vigorous, energetic, and newly committed to the cause. In evidence, I offer his latest book, The Conscience of an Anarchist: Why It's Time to Say Good-Bye to the State and Build a Free Society. This is a general introduction to libertarianism for a reader who is either entirely ignorant of the subject or in possession of only limited information regarding it. And it is high time, I say, that someone has published a new volume in that category. The last such general introduction that seems to have made any lasting impression was Mary Ruwart's Healing Our World, and that first came out nearly 20 years ago, in 1992.

It is, as I say, high time that a new contender should enter the field. It is useful to think about this, I believe, in the same way that we think about much revisionist history. The American historian Warren I. Cohen said back in 1967 that "every generation of historians tends to give new interpretations to the past." Another American historian, Richard Hofstadter, echoed this theme in 1968, when he wrote in his book The Progressive Historians about what he called "that perennial battle we wage with our elders." As Hofstadter saw it,

If we are to have any new thoughts, if we are to have an intellectual identity of our own, we must make the effort to distinguish ourselves from those who preceded us, and perhaps preeminently from those to whom we once had the greatest indebtedness.

Similarly, every generation of libertarians will tend to come up with a slightly different way of introducing the subject of individual liberty to outsiders. One generation's libertarian primer will differ from the preceding generation's — and from the following generation's. This is as it should be, as it must be. If we are to have any new thoughts, if we are to have an intellectual identity of our own, we must make the effort to distinguish ourselves from those who preceded us, and perhaps pre-eminently from those to whom we once had the greatest indebtedness.

So how does Gary Chartier's new libertarian primer distinguish itself? Well, first of all, it entirely eschews the word libertarian — the "L-word," I guess you could call it. Look as you might through Chartier's text, you'll find not a single occurrence anywhere in it of that word. Where Murray Rothbard or David Friedman would have said "libertarian" or "libertarianism," Gary Chartier says "anarchist" or "anarchism."

I met him recently in a rather noisy Southern California restaurant and asked him why. He answered,

I really want this book to reach an audience of people for whom the word "libertarian" might be a red flag — people for whom the word "libertarian" might suggest any number of things that they think they know about and don't like. And I felt as if by focusing on anarchy, that certainly is another red flag term, but I thought perhaps there might be some people's defenses I could move past that.

The readers for whom the word "libertarian" might be a red flag, I asked Chartier — might these readers be readers on the Left? He replied,

I would hope that this book would be of interest to frustrated Constitutionalists and other folks who might think of themselves as on the Right. But I definitely wanted it to be a book that was accessible and comprehensible to the sort of principled statist lefty who was increasingly frustrated with the Obama administration and wondered if there were alternatives. … I chose my words, I hope, pretty carefully to not unnecessarily turn off that group of readers.

Another way in which Chartier's Conscience of an Anarchist distinguishes itself is by eschewing all moral arguments for a free society. "I've never been a consequentialist," Chartier wrote a couple of years ago in a blog post. But in fact his argument in The Conscience of an Anarchist is entirely consequentialist. The state should be abolished because of the consequences of tolerating such an institution in human society. Chartier stresses, however, that his reliance on a consequentialist argument on this occasion is purely strategic; it does not signal, he says, any general unwillingness on his part to argue for liberty from a natural-rights perspective.

Not in this book, no. I'm prepared to argue that at some length elsewhere, but it's definitely, from a strategic point of view, not what I wanted to argue here … not because I want to argue against certain kinds of natural rights approaches — I mean, one of my ongoing academic interests is natural law theory, and I've worked quite a bit in that area. But it seemed to me that for this book that wasn't the most effective rhetorical tack to take. … What I particularly didn't want to do in this book [is] I didn't want to scare off the principled statist lefties. I also wanted this to be a book that anarchists of a pretty broad range of sorts could pick up and appreciate without thinking that by endorsing the book they were endorsing a particular position on the question, "What should a stateless society look like?" I would like somebody who identifies with Kropotkin or Proudhon to pick up this book and say, "All of this seems right to me; now I know this guy and I might well end up having an argument about what we want our stateless community to look like, but the substance of the book doesn't amount to a broadside against me, you know?" I think that was pretty important to me in trying to shape the book.

Not that there's anything new or original about avoiding moral arguments for liberty; this was the approach of David Friedman in The Machinery of Freedom in 1973. Nor is there anything revolutionary about trying to sell libertarian ideas without using the "L-word"; Sy Leon gave a talk at the Libertarian Supper Club of Los Angeles back in the mid-1970s, more than 35 years ago, when Gary Chartier was maybe eight years old. The talk was called "Why I Am Not a Libertarian." This was enough in and of itself to draw a sizable audience: after all, Sy Leon was Robert LeFevre's heir apparent, a former Nathaniel Branden Institute business representative who had joined LeFevre at his Freedom School in rural Colorado and then helped him move the operation to Southern California and reestablish it there.

Sy Leon was the organizer of the League of Non-Voters and at least the putative author of a short book called None of the Above, which argued that if we must have elections, we ought to include "None of the Above" on every ballot, and whenever "None of the Above" wins, a new election should be held, with new candidates — none of the candidates who had lost to "None of the Above" would be allowed to run again. The book had actually been ghostwritten for Sy by George H. Smith, but it was an accurate account of Sy's thinking, for all that.

Sy Leon was also Harry Browne's advance man — the man who set up Browne's speaking engagements nationwide — and Browne himself was about the most famous libertarian you could come up with in the Los Angeles of the mid-1970s. He was a local boy who had made good — more than good, really — with a bestselling libertarian book called How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World. How could Sy Leon not be a libertarian? Sy's beef, as it turned out, was the Libertarian Party, which he feared was going to teach Americans that libertarians believed in the political process. Clearly, the term libertarian was going to have to be abandoned, as the term liberal had had to be abandoned earlier; both terms had been hijacked by the enemies of individual liberty and were no longer usable.

That was one man's judgment — a judgment made at a particular time and place, when a particular generation of libertarians was facing particular obstacles in its efforts to spread the word. The idea of abandoning the L-word didn't really catch on with the generation of libertarians it was aimed at, which happens to be my own generation of libertarians. Will more of the libertarians now in their teens and twenties see the matter differently? Time will tell. Time will also tell whether the young libertarians of today will find Chartier's consequentialist arguments against the state persuasive.

They certainly seem so to me. "I'm an anarchist," Chartier writes,

because I believe there's no natural right to rule … because I believe the state lacks legitimacy … because I believe the state is unnecessary … because the state tips the scales in favor of privileged elites and against ordinary people … because the state tends to be destructive. It engages in war and plunder, and seems persistently to be involved in ratcheting up the level of violence and injustice across borders — which are, of course, themselves state creations … because the state restricts personal freedom — as a way of maintaining order, benefiting the privileged, preserving its own power, or subsidizing some people's moralizing preferences … and because I believe a stateless society would provide opportunities for people to explore diverse ways of living fulfilled, flourishing lives and to put the results of their exploration on display.

There's nothing new here, of course, but the familiar insights and arguments are freshly formulated in a breezy, snappy, very readable style and with an admirable succinctness. Murray Rothbard's For A New Liberty and David Friedman's The Machinery of Freedom were the libertarian primers, the general introductions to libertarianism, that captured the attention of my generation of libertarians. Libertarians who are now in their teens and twenties could do far worse than to let their own attention be captured by Gary Chartier's Conscience of an Anarchist.