Anarchy and Liberalism

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Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

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52 Responses

  1. Avatar Jaybird says:

    Check out:

    Walter Kaufmann’s _Without Guilt and Justice: From Decidophobia to Autonomy_ (it’s apparently available online).

    Christian Anarchism is also something that I enjoy googling from time to time. I can’t go there with them but I envy them.Report

  2. Avatar greginak says:

    Its your journey through many ideas that makes you interesting to read Eric. The ideologues are interesting at times but to predictable and trapped by their own blind spots.Report

    • Avatar E.D. Kain in reply to greginak says:

      Thanks, greginak.Report

    • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to greginak says:

      I hope it’s not the behavior of an ideologue to say that liberalism is essentially a pro-government skepticism of government aims and methods, and is therefore pretty much fully opposed to anarchism, which isn’t about skepticism at all, it’s just opposition to the very existence of government. I hope it’s not the behavior of an ideologue to point out that an ideology that seeks to control and right-size, but also emphatically defend and uphold, some institution is not an ideology that is a fellow-traveler with an ideology that seeks, definitionally, *nothing* other than the abolition of that institution. I hope that is the behavior of someone who is just looking at some given terms and definitions and ideas, and making deductive observations about their interrelations, not of someone who is holding forth on a blinding ideological platform.Report

      • Avatar E.D. Kain in reply to Michael Drew says:

        Well like I’ve said with rather a lot less sarcasm, I think there are some important insights to glean from anarchy that liberals could learn from. I admire anarchists but I’m far from certain that I could adopt that philosophy for my own. I don’t think the two are so diametrically opposed however. Or at least I believe there is some common ground.Report

        • Avatar greginak in reply to E.D. Kain says:

          For me what is interesting is taking good insights from as many viewpoints or camps as possible to improve my own ideas. For example i find libertarianism to have a lot of great insights although on the whole i find most of the common criticisms of it correct. We need to work more on the areas where our ideas don’t work then on restating where we like our ideas. A liberalism that isn’t focused on learning, empiricism and constant improvement of ideas is a weak liberalism.Report

          • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to greginak says:

            Libertarianism and liberalism are indeed fellow-travelers. Indeed, with the ‘incremental’ approach to libertarianism that seems now to have taken hold among a certain set of right-thinking libertarians, I am less and less sure there is an important distinction to be made between the two.Report

          • Avatar E.D. Kain in reply to greginak says:

            greginak – I largely agree. My problem often arises because I think there are so many good ideas out there, but they are not all tied together into one coherent philosophy. So I bounce off the walls of each of them, trying to figure out how to weave my web between them.

            Michael – yes, libertarianism and liberalism are fellow travelers, and I have been particularly interested lately in left-libertarianism. The thing is, many left-libertarians describe themselves also as anarchists. There is a wide range of opinion in that sphere, and between that sphere and mainstream libertarianism. But I think left-libertarians are often much more sympathetic to liberal causes.

            For instance, take a look-see at this post from Charles Davis in which he takes a pretty critical stance toward one of my favorite libertarians, Radley Balko. Davis is a left-anarchist, but I think his views are more clearly of the “fellow traveler” variety than Balko’s more mainstream libertarian views – at least on economics.Report

            • Avatar greginak in reply to E.D. Kain says:

              I tend to think the best actual form of government would piss off purists of every stripe since it would take what works best from all pots. There wouldn’t be any name or particularly coherent philosophy other then empiricism and some degree of pragmatism.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater in reply to greginak says:

                There wouldn’t be any name or particularly coherent philosophy other then empiricism and some degree of pragmatism.

                Yes. With a wide scope of values. Maybe we can call it ‘wide-scope pragmatism’.Report

            • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to E.D. Kain says:

              The thing is, many left-libertarians describe themselves also as anarchists.

              If you will direct me to a piece of writing in which this occurs that you believe I should take seriously, I will read it.Report

              • Avatar E.D. Kain in reply to Michael Drew says:

                Wikipedia is a good place to start: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Left-libertarianism#Non-aggression_and_freed_marketsReport

              • Avatar Peter Muchen in reply to E.D. Kain says:

                From your Wikipedia article:

                “Arguing that vast disparities in wealth and social influence result from the use of force, and especially state power, to steal and engross land and acquire and maintain special privileges, members of this school typically urge the abolition of the state. They judge that, in a stateless society, the kinds of privileges secured by the state will be absent, and injustices perpetrated or tolerated by the state can be rectified. Thus, they conclude that, with state interference eliminated, it will be possible to achieve “socialist ends by market means.”[34]”

                Again, this misses the point about injustices perpetrated by other agents than the all-evil state. What about the injustices perpetrated by people with means to do violence, or people with vast amount of money? Without the “state” or “government” or whatever you want to call it, where would the check-and-balance comes from? Or are you suggesting everyone should take up arms to protect themselves and their rights? Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think that is the society most people want to live in.Report

              • Avatar E.D. Kain in reply to Peter Muchen says:

                The argument would be those other agents are all creatures of the state. Also, do you think the state truly provides the checks and balances against the wealthy? Who is locked up on our prisons? Who dies in our wars? Who gets bailed out?Report

              • Avatar Just John in reply to E.D. Kain says:

                Over the weekend I finished reading Fukuyama’s “Origins of Political Order”; one of the main points that he makes is that the power of the state is primarily impeded/undermined by powerful patrimonial elites, not the broad mass of the people. I’d never read of Hungary’s Golden Bull (early 13th century) and the contrast between it and England’s Magna Carta. Essentially, Hungary’s Golden Bull limited the state in a way that empowered their aristocratic class to abusively exploit the people much more; the consequent weakness of the Hungarian state allowed the country’s energies to be expended mostly on the internal competition among the aristocracy for the enrichment and advancement of their own lineages; and the state’s inability to concentrate and accumulate power resulted in Hungary being conquered by external enemies.

                In a successful western liberal nation like the United States, it seems that the rampant injustices you cite are perpetrated by the state when the state’s power is directed in the service of elites — economic/social/racial — whose interest/inclination demands the oppression of non-elites. Universal suffrage combined with widespread literacy and freedom of speech and association works against this shackling of the state to the elite. Also, there is the infiltration of egalitarian ideas and values into the scion of the elite. The emancipation of slaves, women’s suffrage, guarantee of civil rights, were all state actions, not private ones.

                The problem with the Libertarian construct is that it holds the state to be antipathetic to the maximizing the extension of individual liberty; but the real enemy of broadly-based liberty is the concentration of economic and physical power in the upper class, where it gets concentrated naturally because of the natural impulse to favor kin, friends and clients.

                By the way, the wealthy, powerful and privileged used to die a lot more in our wars because that used to be part of what legitimated social and political leadership.Report

              • Avatar Larry in reply to E.D. Kain says:

                The problem with the Libertarian construct is that it holds the state to be antipathetic to the maximizing the extension of individual liberty;

                No, that’s the problem with the Anarchist construct — the libertarian (small-l) construct holds the state to be a necessity but an always dangerous one, and therefore an institution to be limited and reduced as far as is practicable at the time (i.e., a changing notion of “practicality”). Note that “the emancipation of slaves” and “women’s suffrage” were state actions only in the sense of the state acting to undo its own repressions.Report

              • Avatar Kim in reply to E.D. Kain says:

                … Sony has tanks. They semi-occasionally use them, if you upset them enough. I do not consider SONY an agent of the Japanese gov’t, and I believe that without the Japanese gov’t, it would not be a pretty scene.

                … I also remember Argentina. Anarchy is not an option.Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to E.D. Kain says:

                Indeed. Well. While I speculated that libertarianism is a species of liberalism while asserting that anarchism is not, I did not express confidence in this. The article on Left-libertarianism mostly makes me reconsider that libertarianism is part of liberalism: it seems that some libertarians will be liberals, while others not.

                I should also have taken better note of your particular claim: that some left-libertarians consider themselves anarchists, not that some liberals do. Since my concern here has always been with the relationship between liberalism and anarchism since you said they were fellow-travelers, I should have taken better care to see that your observation about how some left-libertarians also consider themselves anarchists was not strictly on the point I was probing. Interesting observation nonetheless.Report

        • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to E.D. Kain says:

          Sarcasm? Not sure I’ve ever written a less sarcastic comment.Report

          • Michael – I apologize. I read you as sarcastic. The repeated “I hope it is not the behavior of an idealogue” sounded like sarcasm. Lost in translation I suppose. My bad. And no, to answer your sincere question, I don’t think you sound at all like an idealogue.Report

            • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to E.D. Kain says:

              No worries; I can see that. Was just going for a little good-old-fashioned rhetorical repetition for effect, is all. But I really think they are pretty far apart, as I understand liberalism (which is potentially idiosyncratic way; moreover the way I understand liberalism is kind of a point I’ve been trying to make a lot around here lately in a way that is designed to provoke a certain amount of thought if not response, so I don’t mind at all your pushing back on it) and if we take what anarchism says it is as seriously as I think we should. On the other hand, I don’t remotely disagree that some of the things anarchists have to say to defend their positions are likely to be things that liberals will simply have to contend with, being that they are formidable arguments. it’s just that i think those arguments tend to be ones that honest liberals will already be contending with to some extent if they are at all engaging with libertarianism, which they should be, given that it is a fellow-traveling point of view, if not in fact just a subpart of liberalism, if one particularly zealous with respect to the component of liberty that depends on being as little interfered with by powers calling themselves “the state” as possible. I consider anarchism a completely different ideological species.Report

  3. Avatar North says:

    If absolutely nothing else anarchists and anarchism offer a valuable null hypothesis against which policy and programs can be measured to the benefit of the polity as a whole.Report

    • Avatar Chris in reply to North says:

      Like “atheism,” “anarchism” by itself is just shy of being an empty concept, since it is only the negation of something. I suppose that, if one is considering a particular type of institution of power, that nearly empty concept might serve as a quick and dirty H0. However, in order to know what any real anarchism, that is one actually conceived by anarchists, you’d have to know the content of the anarchism in order to know what it’s actually negating. So only as an abstract concept does anarchism work as a null hypothesis. In reality, anarchists are some of the most contentious bastards on the planet. They have been fighting amongst themselves, sometimes with words, sometimes with guns, over which form of anarchism is the right one for as long as there have been anarchists. There is left anarchism and right anarchism, and within each of those a hundred variations on a hundred variations. Left libertarianism, the spectrum of beliefs that E.D. keeps mentioning, sometimes means free market monarchism or anarchism, and sometimes means social anarchism or some sort of anarchist collectivism. I myself have strong affinities for the latter family of anarchisms/left libertarianisms, and none for the former (

      I think various forms of anarchism offer powerful and important critical tools, but they are anything but null hypotheses. Notice my use of the plural. That’s because there is no one “anarchism,” which makes it impossible to see “anarchism” as H0. Like “atheism,” by itself it is just shy of being an empty concept, since it is only the negation of something (and like atheism, what that something is varies depending on the species of anarchism you’re dealing with). I suppose by itself it could be seen as a null hypothesis, but since very few people use “anarchism” in that way, it’sAnarchists for a long time have fought among each other, with words and sometimes with guns, over which form of anarchism is the right one. There is left anarchism and right anarchism, and within each a hundred variations on a hundred variations. Left libertarianism, for example, which E.D. tosses around, sometimes means a free market minarchism or anarchism, and sometimes means social anarchism or a sort of anarchist collectivism. I myself have strong affinities for the latter family of anarchisms/left libertarianisms, and none for the former (as I think I’ve said in comments to other posts, I don’t see how you can have markets without coercion, but that’s another discussion entirely). And I doubt anyone would consider that a null hypothesis.

      I do think anarchisms, properly conceived, can offer powerful tools for evaluating power structures and their justifications (since, from an anarchist perspective, few if any are justified – and yes, sometimes it’s “few” and not “none”). These tools are sometimes market-based, sometimes Marxist, and sometimes in between or even outside that axis entirely, but they are much more than just a null hypothesis.Report

  4. Avatar Peter Muchen says:

    It’s the mark of extreme naivety to think that in an anarchic society without a functioning government that some sort of power base would not sprung up anyway. I’d rather have a democratically-elected government, thank you very much, no matter how deficient it is, rather than some thugs with guns ending up as my de facto ruler.Report

  5. Avatar Peter Muchen says:

    On people praising ED for not being wedded to one particular ideology, for being open-minded etc etc, sure, those are good characteristics. But there are only so many road-to-Damascus conversion story you can stomach from one person, before that person starts to seem like the boy who cried wolf. Ideology isn’t clothes you can try on and discard at your latest inconvenience. And it would probably help if every time ED try on a new ideology, he doesn’t sound like a know-it-all who knows better than people who have been believing and fighting for that particular ideology probably longer than he’s been alive. A little humility is advisable when you are just “trying out” stuff.Report

    • Avatar E.D. Kain in reply to Peter Muchen says:

      So do you read me regularly? You don’t comment much. I wonder if you read me enough to tie my political theory posts together. Or to notice the many times I say I don’t really know or have all the answers.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Peter Muchen says:

      A lot of us (not all, maybe not even most, but a lot) have undergone similar journeys. Maybe we haven’t hit the same notes and definitely not in the same order but it’s still a cover of a song we know very, very well.

      Watching someone else play it like they mean it is kinda cathartic.

      I suppose that E.D. won’t stop here and he won’t stop at the next philosophy he tries on. I suppose he’ll irritate the next group of folks he finds himself allied with.

      And I suppose that they’ll bitch and moan about him showing up… and, after he leaves, they’ll bitch about their new allies and how they aren’t as good as E.D.

      The sun rises, the sun sets. Whadyagonnado?Report

      • Avatar Christopher Carr in reply to Jaybird says:

        I can see and appreciate what Erik’s trying to do, and I think he’s been fairly “consistent” with this. He’s trying to find the best from each worldview he comes across to see if he can reconcile them because he believes that others believe what they say they believe. This is kind of the antithesis to the usual run-of-the-mill liberals are stupid conservatives are evil crap the uselessness of which is intuitively obvious at this point almost fifty years into the Culture War.

        Personally, I believe libertarianism already does this.Report

        • It’s when they start repeating themselves that you have to watch them closely.Report

        • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Christopher Carr says:

          I can see and appreciate what Erik’s trying to do, and I think he’s been fairly “consistent” with this. He’s trying to find the best from each worldview he comes across to see if he can reconcile them because he believes that others believe what they say they believe. This is kind of the antithesis to the usual run-of-the-mill liberals are stupid conservatives are evil crap the uselessness of which is intuitively obvious at this point almost fifty years into the Culture War.

          Mm-hm. Yep. Check.

          Personally, I believe libertarianism already does this.

          Yyy… wait, what?Report

          • Avatar Christopher Carr in reply to Michael Drew says:

            What about “let everyone do what they want so long as they don’t force someone else to do something they don’t want” doesn’t conform to this?

            Let me also add that there are certain species of liberalism and conservatism that are non-autistic, non-coercive in a world where autistic, coercive political ideology is the norm. These are all species of good-ole political compass libertarianism as the word is properly used and with regard to the personal journey discussion earlier in the thread. I’m not talking about Koch-corporate-toady libertarianism or whatever other real or imaginary libertarianisms exist in the public consciousness.Report

            • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Christopher Carr says:

              What about “let everyone do what they want so long as they don’t force someone else to do something they don’t want” doesn’t conform to this?

              The kind that considers taxation to support things like public schools and public parks forcing someone else to do something they don’t wantReport

            • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Christopher Carr says:

              What’s the “this” that libertarianism “does”?

              to find the best from each worldview he comes across to see if he can reconcile them because he believes that others believe what they say they believe

              and

              the usual run-of-the-mill liberals are stupid conservatives are evil crap

              seem like things people do, and things that for isms are undefined functions. I don’t understand how libertarianism can “do” these things.Report

        • Avatar E.D. Kain in reply to Christopher Carr says:

          Thanks, Christopher. You say it better than I could say of myself.Report

      • Avatar Robert Cheeks in reply to Jaybird says:

        “The sun rises, the sun sets.”

        Well, so far, anyway.Report

  6. Avatar Christopher Carr says:

    I with you on the fascination part. Read this to have your mind blown: http://www.complementarycurrency.org/ccLibrary/Mutual_Aid-A_Factor_of_Evolution-Peter_Kropotkin.pdf

    I ultimately stop short of anarchy because I’m a Hobbesian. I think humans do tend to self-organize, and this can have very many positive effects, but this only results in a peaceful order when there is no scarcity. Scarcity necessitates a civilizing entity or else we’d be killing each other for resources (cynics can smirk now). The important thing is to keep the state focused on maintaining whatever peaceful order emerges from free human cooperation instead of sculpting the order itself. You might call this idea liberalism.Report

    • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Christopher Carr says:

      The cynics can smirk, but indeed you are correct. Where reasonably good government obtains, for the most part resource killings are deterred. It’s where government is degraded, nonexistent, or at its seams (i.e. in the unaltered anarchy of the international space, or else, again, where government has eroded to where property is no longer protected) that an un(der)mitigated, nasty-brutish Hobbesian resource war of all against all holds sway. You know, like Texas.

      (J/k! ;D)Report

    • Avatar E.D. Kain in reply to Christopher Carr says:

      Well someday we’ll all live in the Culture and scarcity will ne a thing of the past.Report

    • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Christopher Carr says:

      This comment seems to me incredibly confused. You seem to be saying that the mere existence of scarcity is perpetuated and sustained by the state. I guess this makes sense if you go back to Hobbesian beginnings in which the purpose of the state is to constrain the actions and behaviors of people. But it doesn’t seem historically accurate. And it doesn’t seem conceptually coherent either. On one side of the equation, the state regulates markets to make them profitable for suppliers, which in turn makes them more stable. That means making sure that suppliers earn sufficient profit over long periods of time without fear from excessive and destabilizing competition from upstarts. This is a necessary role the state plays, one that I’m always surprised people are so reluctant to admit or blid to recognize. But the point is that the state plays an active role in enabling behavior which has great social utility.

      On the other hand, of course, the state may exclude legitimate competition thru collusion with already existing market players to promote even more profits. This is usually understood to be a clear abuse of state power. But I don’t think it is so clear. Stability in markets serves not only capitalists, but consumers as well, and the question of the limits of state power in maximizing profits vs. merely sustaining profitability is certainly subject to reasonable dispute. But it isn’t a trivial question. Or one that can be answered by a priori reasoning.Report

  7. Avatar Robert Cheeks says:

    Really though, isn’t it just an apocalyptic era, from the crucifixion until the return of the parousia. The pneumatic event seems to have spiritually negated any truth but the truth of the event as it relates to the revelatory return, at least for Paul and John, which was and remains the source of great consternation.
    One problem is that the faith (or the Logos) does not indicate a political preference. Hence, we are flailing about trying to fit the round representative humanity into the square egalitarianism, that is mass/corrupt humanity.
    And, thus we have the drama of humanity.Report

  8. I for one am tired of Forbes magazine’s relentless knee-jerk liberalism.Report

  9. Avatar Koz says:

    “Still, with every new war and every new police beating or other horror story out of the war on drugs, yeah I move closer to something like anarchy.”

    It’s easy to see why someone would oppose war or police beatings but I’m guessing you haven’t thought very much about the connection between those things and anarchy.

    In particular, this looks like an example of fiat abuse. Ie, who would you have to persuade or control to implement anarchy? If somehow you could persuade those people to follow your will, how many other options would be available and why would you favor anarchy out of those options.Report

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