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Making Anarchy Believable

September 26, 2011

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[The Conscience of an Anarchist: Why It's Time to Say Good-Bye to the State and Build a Free Society • By Gary Chartier • Cobden Press, 2011 • X + 118 pages]

"Chartier's book is vital reading for libertarians."

      Gary Chartier is a difficult author to review. In this excellent book, he displays a remarkable ability to discuss a profusion of arguments in a short number of pages. Given this abundance, I cannot hope to give a comprehensive account of the book. I propose instead to concentrate on a few arguments; but to get the full impact of the way Chartier amasses point after point in his relentless case against the state, one needs to read the entire work.

      Chartier quickly dispatches philosophical arguments that claim to show a duty of obedience to the state. One such argument claims that "simply remaining within a state's territory somehow constitutes consent to its authority" (p. 7). Against this, Chartier raises two points. First, if someone remains in a territory, this by no means shows that he has in fact consented to the state's authority. He might have all sorts of other reasons for staying. "Perhaps I remain there because opportunities for work are plentiful, or because my friends are there, or because I like the style of architecture. And perhaps I don't [leave] because gangs of thugs seem to be in charge everywhere else" (p. 7).

     The statist might respond to this that even if one has other reasons for staying in a territory that have nothing to do with the state's alleged authority, this does not matter. Staying in a territory just is consent to the rule of the state, regardless of whether the resident intends this. (I think, but am not sure, that this is what Chartier means by his distinction between signaling and constituting consent.)

      This response by the statist fails. As Chartier notes, it is plausible to claim that residence constitutes consent only if there is antecedent reason to believe that we ought to acknowledge the state's authority. (Chartier does not say that this is a sufficient reason for taking residence to constitute consent, just a necessary one.) But precisely that question is what is in dispute:

The rulers of Bozarkia could reasonably claim that it [residence] constituted consent to their authority only if they already had legitimate authority.… A procedure for establishing the state's authority that assumes that the state already has authority doesn't really demonstrate much of anything. (p. 7)

      If we cannot prove that we ought morally to obey the state, must we accept the state as a practical necessity? Without a commonly accepted and enforced law, would not a society dissolve into chaos? Chartier brings decisive arguments to bear against this superficially plausible contention. Why should a common law require a single agency to enforce it? Further, do states themselves have the single law that the statist contention presumes to exist?

But why should we assume … that we need the state — an organization with a monopoly over the use of force in a given territory — to protect us against violence?… Our experience with other monopolies certainly doesn't give us any reason to think that the state, a monopoly, will likely provide high-quality security, justice, and other services at low cost.… And it's clear that people can resolve disputes peacefully despite conflicts across legal systems. (pp. 12–14)

        The state, Chartier maintains, is neither required by morality nor practically necessary. We can go much further. It is, he holds, an instrument of plunder, which acts against the interests of the broad masses to maintain and preserve an elite in privilege.

The state is actively involved in all aspects of economic life. And, whether the effect is deliberate or not, the practical result of its involvement … is that the scales are consistently tipped in favor of privileged elites. (p. 25, emphasis omitted)

     Chartier makes a forceful case for this view. He points out, e.g., that regulations that purport to protect consumers in fact often make it difficult for small businesses to challenge established giants. "[L]arge established firms will likely find it easier to spend what's needed to comply with new regulations — while smaller companies won't" (p. 30).

       So far, I have been in entire agreement with Chartier's argument; few writers can match him in the ability to grasp at once the essence of an issue. But Chartier is not only a libertarian but a left-libertarian as well. This leads him to some questionable claims. He says,

In England, for instance, previously unenclosed common lands were enclosed and appropriated by large landowners. Many of the people filling the "dark Satanic mills" of the Industrial Revolution had been dispossessed from the land on which they worked. (p. 26)

       Here, perhaps influenced by the work of Kevin Carson, whom he terms in his bibliography a "brilliant and creative synthesist and reinterpreter of the anarchist tradition" (p. 107), he ignores recent research that denies enclosures had the dire effects he mentions.1 (Incidentally, whether Blake meant by "dark Satanic mills" the new factories of the Industrial Revolution is also a matter much in dispute.)

      Chartier says that "unions, not legislators, won the first big battles in the struggle for the eight-hour day" (p. 35). He seems to take for granted that bargaining power determines wage rates, not workers' marginal productivity, as Austrian economics maintains. Perhaps Chartier would respond that standard market theory does not apply when powerful firms have gained dominance through aid from the state; if they have done so, workers need strong unions to defend themselves. But even large firms that would not have existed in a free market stand subject to economic law and competition, and they too must pay workers what their marginal productivity requires. Left-libertarians, like neoclassical economists, often think (in my view wrongly) that competition requires an abundance of small firms; but Austrian economists reject this. And even if Chartier wishes to stress the weakness of labor in contrast to powerful and malign capitalists allied to the state, he ought to have mentioned, in his discussion of immigration restrictions, that some workers benefit from them. State intervention is not invariably a tool that helps the elite.

      Again, Chartier rightly deplores government-licensing requirements on banks. But why does he think that free market would "tend to drive down interest rates" (p. 32)? The view that monopolistic banks keep interest rates unduly high, though common among monetary cranks, is without basis. And his claim that "to some extent, at least" (p. 38), the corporate form would not exist without state action ignores the arguments of Robert Hessen, in his In Defense of the Corporation, to the contrary.

      When Chartier turns to foreign policy, I am glad once more to endorse what he says entirely. As he incisively notes,

the US government's declared and undeclared wars are too often pointless exercises in imperial expansion. Empire-building takes military, political, and economic forms … the US government's wars are pointless because [they] don't make Americans safer. Military interventions in Korea, Vietnam, Lebanon, Grenada, Iraq, the Balkans, Somalia, and Afghanistan haven't served to protect Americans against foreign attacks. (p. 53)

      One point Chartier makes in his comprehensive indictment of militarism is especially valuable and often neglected. Military veterans often secure positions on police forces, but the violence of war they have endured, in Iraq and elsewhere, ill suits them for dealing with civilian affairs. They all too frequently respond to difficulties with spasms of violence. "Military organizations and high-pressure combat-linked environments can encourage the dehumanization of perceived enemies. And people can bring their histories with them into civilian life" (p. 64).

      Chartier's book is vital reading for libertarians. It manifests the author's wide-ranging knowledge of philosophy, ethics, history, and contemporary politics.

  • 1. For a summary of this recent research, see Deirdre McCloskey, Bourgeois Dignity (Chicago, 2010), pp. 172 ff.

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