Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Should Libertarians Attempt to Recapture the Word 'Anarchy'?

By Robert Wenzel

In my ongoing exchange with Dr. Walter Block , he proposes (SEE: Walter Block Responds on Anarchy) that anarcho-capitalists hold on to the word anarchy:
 I think it is important that we hold on to words, and not let them be taken away from us.
I am not opposed to such a battle to hold the word, but I do not believe it is a necessity at this time. It would be something of a counterinsurgency move that could score some gains though limited, but likely fun to execute.

To understand the value of an attempted recapture we must understand the value of ideological words over time.

In order do this we must understand the nature of ideological battles.  I would suggest that the number of great thinkers in any ideological battle, who make new advances are few and far between. These type thinkers do not need a specific word to hold down their thinking. They understand the words precisely and what they mean at a given time in relation to the philosophical thinking that they are doing.

One step below the original great thinkers are the masters. Although they may not come out with originally advances in thought, they fully understand the philosophy they hold and advance. They can work from any word. They, like the original thinkers, know the current meaning of words and can place them in the context of their philosophy.

Once we leave the rarified air of the masters and original thinkers, we encounter lower levels of holders of a philosophy. They do not grasp philosophy as fully and thus can be tricked by a change in the meaning of a word.

The lower down this totem pole that we go, the easier it can be for such people to be tricked. 

At the bottom of the totem pole, where there will be many, we have those who might be curious about a philosophy but come nowhere near understanding it at a masters level, There may be some who are just shallow thinkers and lack the mental skills to think deeply about a philosophy, 

It is these lower level thinkers that can be tricked into thinking a philosophy is something that it is not. Since a philosophical movement requires mass support, the loss of the lower rung supporters does cause damage.

In the current libertarian movement those who attempt to identify "gay rights," for example, as a libertarian principle, I would consider to be attacking the fundamental principle of libertarianism.  

Libertarianism is about the non-agression principle, which is silent on the views toward gays other than that the property of gays, like anyone else's property, should not be violated.

It makes sense to defend the original meaning of libertarian against libwaps, as it will teach the lower level libertarians about libertarianism, as the word is defended and further help prevent them from using the word in a fashion that will promote the libertarian philosophy in a manner different from its current and original intent.

The word anarchy is in a different position. As Dr. Block correctly notes:
most people view anarchy as "chaos." 
There  are few on the lower rungs that understand the word in any sense to mean a libertarian society free of chaos. Thus, there are very few lower rung anarchists to protect from being mislead away from liberty. They don't exist. Those that appreciate the word anarchy in a libertarian sense are higher order libertarians that won't be fooled by other definitions of anarchy. They understand what the liberty philosophy is about and understand the context in which the word anarchy is used in that fashion.

That said, there may be strategic value in attempting to re-capture the word anarchy, which was used most commonly in a libertarian sense by the 19th century philosopher Lysander Spooner and later by Benjamin Tucker. Though it was not used exclusively in a libertarian sense at that time. The philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhon is considered by many to be the father of anarchism, but he also considered himself a socialist. And, he considered property theft.

It is this socialist-anarchist tradition that has managed to hold on to the word.  Indeed, Wikipedia lists hundreds of anarchists groups throughout the world, almost all appear to be socialist or leftist type anarchist groups.

That said, to take a phrase from Karl Marx, there is a strong internal contradiction in socialist anarchism. 

If one wanders into a socialist anarchist group, as is possible here in the People's Republic of San Francisco, one can always present these contradictions at these discussions. When in these groups, one  can and should call oneself an anrachist and began to recapture the flag. Perhaps even causing some lefty anarchists to think.

When, say, a socialist anarchist says he wants a higher minimum wage, the libertarian anarchist can respond. "Hey, we are anarchists here. We should not be allowing the government to be setting minimum wages or anything else."

When a radical left anarchist proposes destroying private property. A libertarian anarchist can respond, "Hey we are against government rule but we need to respect our fellow man." 

The goal when in such circles and when writing for such circles is to reset the definition of anarchy so that it becomes the definition of libertarian anarchy and refocus those at the bottom of the leftist anarchist totem pole to start thinking in terms of libertarian anarchy.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with using the word anarchy when one is attempting to have some fun and shock or confuse someone, just realize when you are doing so.

My favorite use of anarchy, when used in a shock sense, now comes when I am introduced to a politician. I say:
Well, I am pretty much an anarchist, but I do like to know the people in power.
So, yeah, let's have some fun and try to recapture the word. I would like to see us turn a bunch of low level socialist anarchists into thinking our way---and maybe even catch a couple of big fish.

But at the same time, I believe in some cases it is best to not use the word anarchist but to use something like my favorite, Private Property Society. The decison to use which words when is a tactical decsion best left without hard rules.

Robert Wenzel is Editor & Publisher at EconomicPolicyJournal.com and at Target Liberty. He is also author of The Fed Flunks: My Speech at the New York Federal Reserve Bank. Follow him on twitter:@wenzeleconomics


  1. Anarcho-capitalism is a broken model. Mises knew it was broken, he did his best to explain why to Rothbard and his followers, but they ignored his criticisms and even try to claim he was an anarchist! His works are littered with statements about the essential nature of the state.

    1. Wags, the difference between Rothbard and Mises is that Rothbard took his thinking to its logical conclusion, while Mises did not. For all minarchists and small government types, it's important to know what exactly is their limiting principle. It generally boils down to "if I think the government should do it, then it's fine." But that's true of statists of all types.

      So, what is your limiting principle? Or do you not have one?

    2. @Ad Libertati,

      Indeed. Well spoken.


      All Mises's principles were anarchic. He only fell back to minarchism because he couldn't envision how anarchy would work in the real world. Key practical implementation details seemed missing. It took Rothbard's contributions to show how anarchism would work just fine to implement Mises's ideas in their purest, fullest form.

  2. Words have consequences. As Orwell wrote, "...if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought." The statists, left and right, have stolen our words.
    Some of our language problems are home grown, however. As much as I love Ron Paul, his use of "intervention" annoys me no end. What he means is violent military aggression, but the term "intervention" evokes a kindly family member escorting an addict to Phoenix House.

  3. I've always like the word "Voluntaryism".

    1. Re: Nick Badalamenti,

      I prefer that word, too, because a) it is very difficult to co-opt and b) is much more direct and accurate.

    2. Ditto. Great connotations. Everyone prefers voluntary things, even statists. The term puts the peaceful social cooperation foot forward. Leaves tougher discussion topics like strict private property for those actually wanting a deep dive into the plumbing.

      Socialism isn't successfully sold by talking about its plumbing, the men with guns taking your stuff. Socialism is successfully sold by talking about all the free goodies it delivers to you.

      Voluntary living is what we are selling - the sizzle. Private property is just how it gets delivered - the steak. The term for our philosophy should sell the what, not the how. The term should sell the sizzle - voluntaryism.

    3. No ordinary person knows what that word means. Ditto libertarian. I prefer the phrase peace and freedom.

  4. Wags, why is ancap a broken model? I see it as the only model that brings peace and prosperity.

  5. Why not change the name of this site to Target Anarchy? Maybe Target Private Property Society?

    Ron Paul's word is liberty. Notice his success in attracting people to the philosophy of liberty, libertarianism, a philosophy which does not require "zero government." People identify very quickly with this word and it has none of the "chaos" or leftist baggage of anarchy. In my opinion, if you stick with the words anarchy, anarchism, and anarcho-, you will see the "liberty" movement plateau (this is already happening) and sooner than later fade into irrelevance and political esoterica.

  6. "Considering the dominant anarchists, it is obvious that the question "are libertarians anarchists?" must be answered unhesitatingly in the negative. We are at completely opposite poles.....We must therefore turn to history for enlightenment; here we find that none of the proclaimed anarchist groups correspond to the libertarian position, that even the best of them have unrealistic and socialistic elements in their doctrines....We must therefore conclude that we are not anarchists, and that those who call us anarchists are not on firm etymological ground and are being completely unhistorical....

    Perhaps, then, we could call ourselves by a new name: nonarchist. Then, when, in the jousting of debate, the inevitable challenge "are you an anarchist?" is heard, we can, for perhaps the first and last time, find ourselves in the luxury of the "middle of the road" and say, "Sir, I am neither and anarchist nor an archist, but am squarely down the nonarchic middle of the road." - Murray Rothbard