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Binswanger on Anarchism


Harry Binswanger, a leading Objectivist philosopher, advances a simple argument that he thinks suffices to undermine libertarian anarchism. The argument is found in his article of January 24 for Forbes, “Sorry, Libertarian Anarchists, Capitalism Requires Government.”

Binswanger’s argument starts from a correct premise. In a free market exchange, each party to the exchange expects to benefit. In Objectivist language, a trade is an exchange of value for value. But force is not a value — it is the negation of value. Therefore, protective services are not a proper subject for market competition. They must be provided by a government monopoly.

As Binswanger puts his argument:

Production is the creation of value, and trade is the voluntary exchange of value for value, to mutual benefit. Force is destruction, or the threat of it. It may be the destruction of a value, as when a hoodlum throws a rock through a store window. Or it may be the destruction of destruction, as when a policeman pulls a gun on that hoodlum and hauls him off to jail. But in either case, it is the opposite of wealth-creation and voluntary trade.

Force properly employed is used only in retaliation, but even when retaliatory, force merely eliminates a negative, it cannot create value. The threat of force is used to make someone obey, to thwart his will. The only moral use of force is in self-defense, to protect one’s rights. . . . The wielding of force is not a business function. In fact, force is outside the realm of economics. Economics concerns production and trade, not destruction and seizure.

Ask yourself what it means to have a “competition” in governmental services. It’s a “competition” in wielding force, a “competition” in subjugating others, a “competition” in making people obey commands. That’s not “competition,” it’s violent conflict. On a large scale, it’s war.

I’m surprised that Binswanger missed the obvious mistake in this argument. A policeman arresting a suspect is not engaged in an economic exchange with him. So far, Binswanger is entirely right. But someone who purchases defense services from a protection agency is not using force. He is exchanging money for the service of protection; and that is, contrary to Binswanger, an exchange of value — money — for value — protection. The fact that protection may involve the use of force on criminals does not change its status as an economically valued good. Binswanger, in brief, confuses, the economic transaction of purchasing protection with the use of force .

Binswanger falls into a related confusion in another passage of his article. He says:

The anarchists object to the very idea of a monopoly on force. That only shows that they cannot grasp what force is. Force is monopoly. To use force is to attempt to monopolize. The cop or the gunman says: “We’ll do it my way, not your way–or else.” There is no such thing as force that allows dissenters to go their own way. If a man wants to have sex with a woman who doesn’t want it, only one of them can have their way. It’s either “Back off” or rape. Either way, it’s a monopoly.

This is not correct. Someone using force does not allow those whom the force is directed against to go their own way, true enough. But the user of force need not claim a monopoly. He need not claim that no one else is free to use force against his target. By the way, I would have thought that after The Fountainhead, Objectivists would stay away from examples that involve rape.

Binswanger’s article contains other mistakes as well. He says that a free market presupposes objective law, but he fails to show that objective law requires a government. But he devotes his principal attention to the argument that contrasts force with economic value.

As an Objectivist in good standing, Binswanger had better hope that this argument fails. The sort of government that Ayn Rand and her followers favor does not extract resources from people through taxation. It depends on voluntary funding, e.g, user-fees for its protective and judicial services. If Binswanger were right, such services could not be the object of market purchase. Because they involve the use of force, they are not a value. How then can they be offered for sale? Or does Binswanger think that it is all right to purchase protection from a monopoly, but not from a competitive enterprise?

By the way, readers who come across philosophical arguments that try to refute Austrian economics or libertarianism are invited to send them to me.

David Gordon is Senior Fellow at the Mises Institute, and editor of The Mises Review.

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