Lindsay Perigo
Lindsay Perigo

Freedom vs. Anarchy

"Politicians are not born, they are excreted," said Cicero.

However unsanitary the metaphor, it is not gratuitous. Anyone who seeks coercive power over others (for reasons which include living off those others' earnings), is truly despicable. By far the greater number of politicians the world over are in this category. In New Zealand, there are few who are not. The current unseemly scrambling for bedfellows, the shameless pandering to prejudice by populist politicians desperate to retain or acquire the taxpayer-funded trappings of power, is evidence enough. If a freedom-lover were to vote at all this year, it would have to be on the basis of: "the least evil of several evils" (Libertarianz excepted), which is to say — for National. (Mr Prebble's ACT is well and truly impaling itself on the pike of pragmatism.) National in the constituency vote, Libertarianz in the party vote — that would be a way of fending off the worst evils and registering support for a positive good.

But, it may be objected, why vote at all? Doesn't the very act of voting sanction the existence of government, and isn't government per se the evil we are trying to banish? Doesn't this follow from the characterisation of politicians above? Isn't my own support for such a view implied by my inclusion in this journal of articles by Rex Benson in support of anarchism — the absence of government?

No, it isn't.

TFR exists to portray "politics, economics and life as if freedom mattered." I believe that for freedom to be achieved, limited government is necessary (and that those who participate in it are not "excreta"). I am happy, however, to have the toss argued — to accommodate those, like Rex, who believe that no government is necessary; to provide what he calls "a rare outlet for polemic of just this kind."

Because it shows up the fact that he's wrong ...

"I know of no anarchist," Rex writes, "who ever proposed that society be constituted without agreed standards, even if these were crystallised into one simple maxim such as 'you are free to do what you like except interfere with someone else's freedom,' nor have any of them ever suggested that we stand idly by if our rights are abused by others."

This raises a number of questions. What if this "simple maxim" is not the "agreed standard"? Why should it be? Why shouldn't the Mongrel Mob's maxims be the "agreed standards"? How are "freedom" and "rights" to be defined? If someone, acting on a different definition from mine, proposes to abuse my rights, who stops him and on what grounds? Of what does "not standing idly by" consist — blowing him away? It is in answering such questions that one encounters the inescapable need for government.

Imagine, for example, being confronted by a Hegelian, who would claim to be an enthusiastic devotee of freedom. In his lexicon, however, individual freedom is a misnomer and true freedom consists in submission by the individual to the state. Such a creature would vigorously promote abuses of individual rights like compulsory taxation, military conscription, censorship, drug prohibition, murder for the "common good" (war) etc., and sincerely argue that by such means, true freedom would be achieved. Rex and I, on the other hand, would loudly protest that such outrages were "interferences with our freedom." In Rex's government-less society, who would prevail? Without a formally constituted agency charged with defining and defending individual rights (government), the answer could only be: he who has the bigger club. Rex might have no intention of "standing idly by" while his rights are abused, but in the presence of armed Hegelians and absence of legally constituted police, to whom and to what would he repair? Like-minded people with better weapons? A home-made nuclear arsenal in his back yard? The spectre of might is right looms large.

Hence Ayn Rand's statement that "a society without organised government [or, to anticipate Rex, 'organised without government'] would be at the mercy of the first criminal [or Hegelian] who came along."

It won't do to suggest, as Rex does, that "arseholes" should simply be "banished." A free society has to put up with "arseholes" — as long as they're not criminal "arseholes." In the absence of government — and its raison d'etre, law — what would be the definition of criminal? Who would lay down the standard and burden of proof? Rex's answer would appear to be: there would be "agreed standards." To which I say again: what about those, unbeholden to and unrestrained by (non-existent) laws, who don't agree to those standards? "Banishment" by consensus? Effected by what means, if they have the bigger clubs?! What is the point of having "agreed standards," particularly pro-freedom standards, without the wherewithal to defend them? And not just against Hegelians and criminals: let us remember that even individualists are capable of innocently breaching contracts — and of having children who may grow up to be raging collectivists!

Galt's Gulch, in Atlas Shrugged, to which Rex repairs for vindication, may not have had an organised government, but its inhabitants, remember, were a small, invitation-only elite of the brightest and the best who had temporarily retreated from the world pending its inevitable collapse. Its immigration policy was decidedly unlibertarian! It is clear from her non-fiction writing on the subject that Ayn Rand did not see a government-less state as a permanently viable model for the world itself.

And for a very good reason, which is the very nub of the matter: "the need for objective laws." Rex's retreat to "agreed standards" makes it plain that he cannot come to grips with the notion of objective anything. He equates objectivity with subjectivism on the one hand ("a hyperbolic reaction against happenstance morality") and intrinsicism ("some intrinsic value independent of our desire to attribute any particular value to it") on the other — both of which are antitheses of objectivity. (For a full description and debunking of these age-old philosophical errors, see Rand's Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal and Leonard Peikoff's Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand.)

Objectivity consists in conceptually grasping facts of reality; for a point of view, a value or a law to be objective, it must be consistent with facts. The relevant fact here, disputed only by sceptics in universities who doubt their own existence, is that human beings, unlike ants or artichokes, possess reason and free will — the capacity to think, choose and act for themselves. From this fact we infer that the social organisation appropriate for human beings is one which leaves them free to think, choose and act, and prohibits only those actions — which some may choose precisely because they have free will — that violate this freedom: actions that involve the initiation of force by one party against another (murder, theft, assault, etc.). And we infer that one independent agency, a dispassionate third party (not a plethora of agencies chosen by different people with differing "agreed standards"), is required to specify and enforce such prohibitions, neutrally, consistently and universally. (This is true whether it is "agreed" to or not. "Agreement" is not the point. Murder is not validated by consensus. The most one can say about "agreement" is that a certain measure of it is a necessary, but far-from-sufficient, pre-condition of freedom.)

To put all of this another way: freedom is a social requirement of man's nature. Freedom is freedom from force. Force is justified only when used in retaliation against those who initiate it. But — "If I am wielding retaliatory force, my use of that instrument must be in strict accordance with publicly promulgated laws, and publicly observable judicial proceedings, so that people are not left wondering how, where and against whom I will use force tomorrow" (David Kelley). A is A — and Anarchism is the Arbitrary writ large.

Such are the objective origins and functions of government. That governments have traditionally overstepped these boundaries and behaved improperly, more like criminals than guardians against them, initiating force rather than retaliating against (or pre-empting) it, is no argument for dispensing with government itself.

Much more could and should be said, but I shall leave the last word in the space available to the late Roy A. Childs, Jr. In the 1970s, Mr Childs was a prominent exponent of anarchism. He challenged Ayn Rand's view of government in a famous essay entitled, Objectivism and the State: an Open Letter to Ayn Rand. Less well known is the fact that he subsequently changed his mind. Why? "Because, to paraphrase my open letter to Ayn Rand, I was wrong. I now regard anarchism as incoherent and even dangerous to the libertarian movement ... Libertarians attempting to implement anarchism would find themselves invariably moving in practice toward something very different; something, furthermore, that they never intended. I believe that the end result of their beliefs and actions would horrify many of them if they could see it in advance."

What "end result"? Here I have to second-guess Mr Childs, because he died without completing his explanation, but I feel secure in re-invoking Cicero's metaphor and answering on Roy's behalf:

"A cesspool of subjectivist strife."

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