Liberty, Anarchy and the Pragmatist’s Dilemma
I will be blogging Gary Chartier’s Conscience of an Anarchist over the next couple of weeks at Forbes, but before we set out, I want to touch on a handful of pieces I’ve read recently which reflect much of my own thinking on anarchy and libertarianism.
I find that I struggle always with the idealistic and the pragmatic; between what I believe to be achievable and what I believe to be true; between nostalgia and my sense of what constitutes a good society. This internal struggle manifests in everything from broad political theory to specific policy debates, such as healthcare.
Jim Henley has an excellent explanation of his move away from libertarianism. He lists five reasons, though I don’t think the list is exhaustive. In brief, the reasons are all tied to the necessity of the welfare state especially in the healthcare industry. Times have changed and the costs associated with major health catastrophe’s are simply too high to provide vis-a-vis private charity any longer. He writes:
There is no political dynamic that gets us from a rickety welfare state to a viable left-libertarian “voluntaryist” minarchism. A left-libertarian, post-state society where neighbor cares for neighbor and we crowd-source help for the needy by leveraging internet technology still appeals to me on a deep emotional level. But no American political movement with the energy and power to eliminate the existing social-welfare system will be animated by the impulses needed to make Voluntaryland work as desired.
The American record is clear: the only anti-welfare-state coalitions that “get things done” are culturally right-wing coalitions. Their animating principle is hostility toward the Other: the nationally, racially, sexually different. This means “limited government” comes bundled in a coalition with nativism, jingoism and sexual inquisition. It relies on a theory of “strong desert” where people are poor because of failures of “personal responsibility.” Eliminating “big government” – meaning, the social programs part of “big government” – in America and keeping it from coming back via the democratic process means this coalition dominates not just all the levers of power but the idea space of the culture. You don’t get robust voluntary support for the indigent and afflicted from that society. Once you establish that “the irresponsible” don’t “deserve” support from the government, it’s unclear why they deserve my personal support either.
I think this is entirely true. But not only is there no political coalition, I don’t think there’s any reason to believe that there ever will be, or that even if there was we’d create from the ashes of the state a stable minarchist or anarchistic society, even though – like Henley – the ideals of a voluntary, peaceful society still appeal to me “on a deep emotional level.”
Matt Zwolinski has related thoughts on anarchy and minimal-state libertarianism. Riffing on the idea that Marxism in practice has basically revealed the implausibility of a truly Marxist society, Matt writes:
It is, after all, exceedingly difficult to find a good example of a successful anarchist society. Yes, I know about Medieval Iceland. And about the surprising relative success of a stateless Somalia. And I agree with my anarchist friends that people tend to underestimate the ability of individuals to form peaceful, voluntary solutions to a variety of social problems.
But still, it’s a striking fact that virtually every living person on the planet falls under the authority of some state. And that every historical instance of a stateless society has evolved (degenerated?) into a state-governed one. Moreover, it seems like (as in the case of communism) we have good theoretical reasons for expecting precisely this result. Anarchist societies face a well-known difficulty in overcoming the collective action problems inherent in defending themselves against external aggression and predation. From this perspective, it would hardly be surprising if we found that stateless societies tend to be conquered by state-governed ones. And this, of course, is precisely what we find. Whatever else can be said about them, anarchist societies are, as an empirical matter, clearly unstable. So how much does this count against anarchism as a normative political theory?
Quite a lot, I think.
At this point we reach what I will call the Pragmatist’s Dilemma. I’ve reached it with many aspects of libertarianism. Universal healthcare, for instance, has many working examples across the developed world. Free market healthcare, on the other hand, does not. There are many examples of different market-based approaches to providing universal healthcare that are valuable, but the American libertarian line that a truly free market – as opposed to a market-based government approach – is plausible strikes me as entirely wrong-headed, and really a waste of intellectual effort.
In any case, how to get from here to there when it comes to anarchism or even a much more libertarian society has always struck me as the fundamental obstacle for anti-state Utopianism or – if not Utopianism – than idealism. The pragmatist in me looks to real-world examples of how societies and states actually operate, and while I appreciate the critique of power embedded in anarchist and libertarian critiques, I don’t find the prescriptions as valuable as the diagnoses. I enjoy political theory as much as anyone, but I need much more than theory to convince me that removing the state would lead to prosperity and peace, even if I do believe generally in the goodness of human nature.
Many left-anarchists believe operating outside of electoral politics, current institutions, and so forth is the way to go. That’s Charles Davis’s argument here, essentially. This is fine, and provides a practical enough route for anarchist-minded people to take to affect social change.
But the pragmatist in me once again rears his ugly head and says, “But electoral politics, for all their flaws and limitations, are still vitally important to the lives of millions of people. The Democrats and Republicans may both be rotten, but the latter is the rottener of the two, and there may indeed be some hope in the former so long as liberals don’t abandon electoral politics entirely.”
Beyond the abstractions of our ideals real lives are in play. When liberals left the field open to Republicans in 2010, the Tea Party helped tilt the power in this country dramatically to the right. This will have far-flung consequences, and we’ve seen some of them in the Rust Belt already, with union busting and dramatic school reform and education cuts in Wisconsin, Michigan, Florida and elsewhere. Real people are impacted by electoral politics, no matter how much we may loathe the system. Democracy isn’t going anywhere any time soon. We may as well play our part.