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Sep 18, 2012

Introducing Anarchism & Justice, by Roy A. Childs, Jr., Part 1

Smith begins his series on Roy A. Childs, Jr., with the impact Childs’s anarchism had on his own thinking.

I first met Roy A. Childs, Jr., in August 1971, shortly after he moved to Hollywood. We hit it off immediately.1

Roy and I were both 22 when we met, but he had published much more than I had, and his knowledge of libertarianism and history was more extensive. Like many libertarians of that time, my introduction to the philosophy of freedom came from reading Ayn Rand, beginning in 1967 (after her appearances on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show).

Around two years later I organized a Students of Objectivism club at the University of Arizona. This was essentially a philosophy discussion group, one that used Rand’s ideas as springboards for discussions and arguments. Possibly because of my interest in freethought literature, which I had been reading for nearly three years before I read Rand, I was repelled by the true-believing mentality that characterized many similar organizations.

Philosophical enlightenment—or lightning, depending on one’s point of view—struck many Randians2 in August 1969, after Jarret Wollstein’s magazine, The Rational Individualist (later The Individualist), published “Objectivism and the State: An Open Letter to Ayn Rand.” This article by Roy converted many Randians, including some who would go on to become prominent members of the libertarian movement, to the anarchism of economist and historian Murray Rothbard (1926-1995). Thus did Roy change the course of the modern libertarian movement with a single article.3

My transition, via Roy, from Randian minarchism4 to Rothbardian anarchism occurred quickly, without any inner turmoil. As conversions go, it was not much of an experience. It seemed little more than a minor course correction during an intellectual journey.

Within days of reading the Open Letter I decided to write a reply and submit it to The Rational Individualist. Having read some things by Murray Rothbard and Robert LeFevre, I was not hostile to the idea of anarchism (LeFevre, as we shall see, called this “autarchy”), despite Rand’s vitriolic and inaccurate attack in “The Nature of Government.” But I found Roy’s style of writing presumptuous and grandiose. Passages like this grated on my nerves:

> Finally, I want to take up a major question: why should you [Ayn Rand] adopt free market anarchism after having endorsed the political state for so many years? Fundamentally, for the same reason you gave for withdrawing your sanction from Nathaniel Branden in an issue of The Objectivist: namely, you do not fake reality and never have. If your reputation should suffer with you becoming a total voluntarist, a free market anarchist, what is that compared with the pride of being consistent—of knowing that you have correctly identified the facts of reality, and are acting accordingly? A path of expedience taken by a person of self-esteem is psychologically destructive, and such a person will find himself either losing his pride or committing that act of philosophical treason and psychological suicide which is blanking out, the willful refusal to consider an issue, or to integrate one’s knowledge. Objectivism is a completely consistent philosophical system you say—and I agree that it is potentially such. But it will be an Objectivism without the state.

I did not believe that Rand needed to be lectured by a lad of 20 on the value of consistency. Roy conceded as much years later. I didn’t know it at the time, but Roy had sent Rand a typescript of the Open Letter a month before its publication.5 Later (in “Anarchist Illusions”), he recalled the consequences of his youthful naiveté:

> Things did not work out exactly as planned. In place of the astonished but eager acceptance of my argument—and there was some minor hope on my part for that result—I received notice in my mailbox of the cancellation of my subscription to Ayn Rand’s magazine, The Objectivist. I took my original letter to Ayn Rand and circulated it to a handful of friends and acquaintances, and after making a few minor line changes, published it in a magazine of small circulation.

Another source of my annoyance was Roy’s apparent belief that his Open Letter might actually change Rand’s mind. I dismissed this tactic as a publicity stunt; I did not believe that anyone familiar with Rand could be that naïve. Not until a few years later, after I became good friends with Roy, did I understand that he could in fact be that naïve. Even in his later years Roy displayed a streak of innocence that was part of his charm.

My initial negative reaction to the Open Letter prompted me to write a rebuttal. After deciding on a title, “Strange Bedfellows: The Anarchism of Roy A. Childs, Jr.,” I sat down at my portable typewriter and began writing.

For the purpose of my critique, I divided Roy’s article into three parts: the first several pages, in which we find Roy’s core argument about a basic contradiction in Rand’s theory of government; a middle section, in which he lists some subsidiary issues and responds to them one by one; and a final part, in which he covers some miscellaneous points and returns to the “contradiction” discussed in the first part.6

The middle section (with five numbered points) struck me as the most vulnerable, so I started there. After covering all five points in as many pages of my rough draft, I returned to the first part, which contains the core of Roy’s argument about a contradiction in Rand’s theory of government. My earlier reading of that part left me with a vague feeling of uneasiness. Although a rebuttal did not immediately occur to me, I assumed one could easily be found. Why? Because Roy’s allegation, if true, seemed far too simple and obvious not to have been noticed before.

I took a break from my heroic task to reread “The Nature of Government” and related material by Rand, but I could find nothing that addressed the problem posed by Roy. I then reread the first part of Roy’s article in search of some fudging on his part. After finding nothing of the sort, I put aside my initial reaction and focused on this passage:

> The quickest way of showing why [a government] must either initiate force or cease being a government is the following: Suppose that I were distraught with the service of a government in an Objectivist society. Suppose that I judged, being as rational as I possibly could, that I could secure the protection of my contracts and the retrieval of stolen goods at a cheaper price and with more efficiency. Suppose I either decide to set up an institution to attain these ends, or patronize one which a friend or a business colleague has established. Now, if he succeeds in setting up the agency, which provides all the services of the Objectivist government, and restricts his more efficient activities to the use of retaliation against aggressors, there are only two alternatives as far as the “government” is concerned: (a) It can use force or the threat of it against the new institution, in order to keep its monopoly status in the given territory, thus initiating the use or threat of physical force against one who has not himself initiated force. Obviously, then, if it should choose this alternative, it would have initiated force. Q.E.D. Or: (b) It can refrain from initiating force, and allow the new institution to carry on its activities without interference. If it did this, then the Objectivist “government” would become a truly marketplace institution, and not a “government” at all. There would be competing agencies of protection, defense and retaliation—in short, free market anarchism.

Although Rand’s political philosophy falls generally in the tradition of classical liberalism, she departed from most classical liberals in two crucial respects. First, she was very specific in prohibiting the initiation of physical force (or the threat of force) as a fundamental social principle that even governments are forbidden to violate. To the extent that a government initiates force against innocent people, it violates the very rights that it should protect. Second, Rand opposed coercive taxation on principle, because taxation necessarily involves the initiation of force by government. Rand therefore discussed possible alternatives that would enable a government to finance itself by voluntary means.

It was not until later that I understood that these two principles, especially the opposition to taxation, placed Rand more in the tradition of individualist anarchism than in the limited government tradition of classical liberalism. But Roy understood the situation clearly. By highlighting the key problem in Rand’s theory of government, he upset the delicate balance she had attempted to achieve between essentially anarchistic premises and a monopolistic government.

This is why, like many other Randians who were persuaded by Roy’s core argument, I moved so easily from limited government to anarchism. The essential principles were already in place, for those who embraced Rand’s theory of rights. All that remained was to apply Rand’s principles consistently, without fear or favor.

Thus, after rereading the first part of the Open Letter, thinking about it some more, and writing some notes that I hoped would eventually qualify as a refutation, I soon decided that there was no credible response to Roy’s argument. I then sat back in my chair and thought, “Well, I guess I’m an anarchist.” And that was that.

But that was not that for Roy, who, years later, repudiated his own defense of anarchism and embraced a theory of limited government. Although Roy planned to write a lengthy article explaining his reasons, he never did so. All we have is the opening fragment, written during the late 1980s, that Joan Kennedy Taylor found among Roy’s papers after his death and published in Liberty Against Power: Essays by Roy A. Childs, Jr. (Fox & Wilkes, 1994). I shall discuss this fragment in the last part of this Introduction.

Excerpted from the introduction to Anarchism & Justice, by Roy A. Childs, Jr., published by Libertarianism.org Press.


  1. It is not my intention to provide a biography of Roy or information about his career after 1975, the year he wrote his last defense of anarchism. Biographical details can be found in accounts written by three of his close friends: Joan Kennedy Taylor, “Roy A. Childs Jr., A Biographical Sketch,” in Liberty Against Power: Essays by Roy A. Childs, Jr. (Fox & Wilkes, 1994); Ronald M. Neff, “Roy Childs on Anarchism,” in six parts, beginning at http://www.thornwalker.com/ditch/eboa_preface_1.htm; and Jeff Riggenbach, “The Story of Roy A. Childs, Jr. (1949-1992),”Mises Daily, 21 January 2011, http://mises.org/daily/4988

  2. As I use the label, “Randian” signifies a person who has been significantly influenced by Rand and who agrees with her general philosophical approach, especially in epistemology and ethics. There are many Randian anarchists. The label “Objectivist” is narrower in scope. An Objectivist is a person who agrees with Rand’s philosophy in its entirety, with the possible exception of some minor issues unrelated to her fundamental principles. I doubt if Roy’s Open Letter converted many hard-core Objectivists to anarchism, if for no other reason than few Objectivists probably read it, but it did persuade many Randians. It would be a veritable contradiction in terms to speak of an “Objectivist anarchist,” since Objectivists view Rand’s theory of government as logically embedded in her moral and political theory, and inseparable from it. Midway between orthodox Objectivists and renegade Randians are those who style themselves “neo-Objectivists.” Whereas Objectivists typically view Objectivism as a “closed system,” neo-Objectivists view it as an “open system,” i.e., as a philosophical theory that can and should be developed more fully, even if this development entails departing from Rand in some respects. Some neo-Objectivists also call themselves anarchists. Needless to say, there is considerable wiggle room in the use of such labels, but it would be incorrect to call Roy an Objectivist (a label he never applied to himself). Even the label “neo-Objectivist” would be misleading, given his voracious reading and the different writers who influenced him. The label “Randian” fits, however, given Roy’s enthusiasm for Rand’s epistemology and theory of rational egoism. 

  3. It should be noted that many Objectivists — especially those who follow philosopher Leonard Peikoff, Rand’s self-proclaimed “intellectual heir — repudiate the label “libertarian.” This aversion is rooted in Rand’s insistence that her followers not affiliate themselves with “‘libertarian hippies,’ who subordinate reason to whims, and substitute anarchism for capitalism.” (The Ayn Rand Letter I, no. 7 [3 January 1972].) According to Rand, “There are sundry ‘libertarians’ who plagiarize the Objectivist theory of politics, while rejecting the metaphysics, epistemology and ethics on which it rests.” (The Ayn Rand Letter III, no. 9 [28 January 1974]). In a letter (20 June 1974) responding to a woman who was apparently concerned about her daughter’s interest in libertarianism, Rand wrote:

    > Please tell your daughter that I am profoundly opposed to today’s so-called libertarian movement and to the theories of Dr. Murray Rothbard. So-called libertarians are my avowed enemies, yet I’ve heard many reports on their attempts to cash in on my name and mislead my readers into the exact opposite of my views. (Letters of Ayn Rand, ed. Michael S. Berliner [Dutton, 1995], 664.)

    Two observations are appropriate here: (1) During the time that Rand wrote her remarks, many self-identified libertarians were advocates of limited government, not anarchism. (The same is true today.) If anarchists seemed to dominate the libertarian movement during the early 1970s, this was partially because they were doing much of the writing and speaking on political theory at that time, thereby attracting a degree of attention that was probably disproportionate to their actual numbers. (2) Rand’s accusation of plagiarism was misplaced, given that the vast majority of libertarian writers who drew from Rand gave her abundant credit and praised her effusively, however much they disagreed with her on some points. Many libertarians were not (and are not) Randians, so they can scarcely be accused of failing to give Rand proper credit. Rand seemed unaware that the theory of limited government has a long and diverse ancestry rooted in post-Renaissance theories of natural rights. Theories of rights and government very similar to Rand’s were defended by many political philosophers, especially those in the Lockean tradition, from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries. 

  4. The term “minarchism” was coined during the 1970s by the anarchist writer and publisher Samuel Edward Konkin III to denote libertarian and Objectivist advocates of minimal government. Quoting Jeff Riggenbach:

    > Sam had a marked talent for neologism. You’ve heard that there are two types of libertarians, anarchists and minarchists — that is, advocates of very small or minimal government? “Minarchist” and “minarchy” and “minarchism” were all coined in the ’70s by Sam. You may have heard that back in the ’70s, libertarians who gave up political activism under the influence of Harry Browne’s book, How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World, were called “Browne-outs”? Another Konkin coinage. You may have heard the term “Kochtopus” applied to the group of libertarian organizations funded in the late ’70s and early ’80s by the Kansas oil billionaire Charles Koch? “Kochtopus” was yet another of Sam’s many coinages. (“Samuel Edward Konkin III,” Mises Daily, 29 July 2010, http://mises.org/daily/4597.) 

  5. According to Ronn Neff, “Roy was sensitive to the fact that the Open Letter had not been particularly deferential to Ayn Rand, whom he admired deeply.…The original opening sentence of the letter as sent to Rand…read: ’I sincerely hope you will consider this letter with every bit of intelligence at your command,’ and continued with ’The purpose of this letter,’ etc.” (“Roy Childs on Anarchism,” http://www.thornwalker.com/ditch/eboa_preface_1.htm.) 

  6. Near the beginning of his Open Letter, Roy wrote: “As far as I can determine, no one has ever pointed out to you in detail the errors in your political philosophy. That is my intention here. I attempted this task once before, in my essay ‘The Contradiction in Objectivism,’ in the March 1968 issue of the Rampart Journal, but I now think that my argument was ineffective and weak, not emphasizing the essentials of the matter. I will remedy that here.” “The Contradiction of Objectivism,” written when Roy was nineteen, was his first published article. It differs in a number of ways from the Open Letter, which was published just seventeen months later. When Roy said that his first article failed to emphasize “the essentials of the matter,” he was referring to his later argument that Rand’s monopolistic government must initiate force, by its very nature, and so violate a basic principle of Rand’s moral and political theory. Although there are hints of this argument in “The Contradiction of Objectivism,” it is never stated clearly. 

This is part of a series