October 16, 2012 essays

This is part of a series

Introducing Anarchism & Justice, by Roy A. Childs, Jr., Part 5

George H. Smith concludes the series with a look at Roy Childs’s evolving views on anarchism.

Roy was a lucid writer, so it is unnecessary to summarize the articles contained in this anthology. The essays speak for themselves. Moreover, it would be virtually impossible to summarize most of the essays included here, given how much ground they cover.

I do, however, wish to comment on a few things; so, having already discussed Roy’s Open Letter—his most influential essay, by far —I shall now turn to the other essays. Let’s begin with “The Epistemological Basis of Anarchism: An Open Letter to Objectivists and Libertarians” (hereafter referred to, for the sake of convenience, as EBA).

This essay, which remained unpublished in Roy’s lifetime, was written in November 1969, within months of the publication of “An Open Letter to Ayn Rand” (August 1969). Roy apparently intended EBA to be a continuation of his Open Letter to Rand, for EBA is also presented as an open letter, but one addressed to the broader audience of “Objectivists and Libertarians.” Many years later, in “Anarchist Illusions,” Roy claimed that EBA was privately “circulated in the thousands,’ but this was probably an exaggeration.

EBA begins with a brief discussion of William Godwin (1756-1836), who is widely regarded as the first “philosophical anarchist.” As Ronn Neff has pointed out, Roy’s quotations from Godwin were almost certainly taken from an anthology of anarchist writings, Patterns of Anarchy (Anchor Books, 1966), edited by Leonard I. Krimerman and Lewis Perry.1 Indeed, Roy probably got the title for his essay from Krimerman and Perry, since the title of their chapter on Godwin is “An Epistemological Basis for Anarchism.”

Roy gave me a typescript copy of EBA not long after we met, and we discussed it at various times. Although I cannot recall the details of our conversations, I do recall that Roy was dissatisfied with parts of the article, which is probably why he never made a serious effort to get it published. His dissatisfaction was stylistic rather than substantive. Parts of EBA are needlessly prolix.

EBA, like the Open Letter, is written in what may be described as a heavy Randian dialect. That is to say, it uses Randian expressions, such as “floating abstraction,” that were (and are) popular among followers of Rand; and much of it consists of little more than paraphrases of Rand’s metaethics, ethics, and epistemology. Roy didn’t always write like this, and he certainly didn’t speak like this, so it is safe to assume that he adapted his style to his intended audience.2

Roy was circumspect in his use of Godwin’s ideas, probably because he knew that many Randian readers would not be receptive to an essay that begins with a discussion of a famous anarchist. He begins by conceding that Godwin was “the father of both individualist and collectivist anarchism,” and he goes on to say that Godwin’s “case for anarchism was seriously marred by the acceptance of a variant of the altruistic moral code….” This was the “single flaw” in Godwin’s “glorious analysis.” He worked from “the assumption that the individual should serve others. Voluntarily, perhaps, but the mistaken premise is still there.”

To appreciate Roy’s strategy here, we need to understand the allergic reaction that many Randians had to any philosopher who defended, or seemed to defend, “altruism”—a word coined in the nineteenth century by Auguste Comte. Knowing that such Randians would be repelled by what appeared to be an altruistic defense of anarchism, Roy maintained that Godwin’s case for anarchism was not based on altruism but rather on an epistemological premise that Rand also endorsed, namely, that “each must have his sphere of discretion.” Roy continued:

The main point … is that [Godwin] thought he could derive anarchism from the right and necessity of independent judgment. Godwin may not have proven his case—but that is my intention here. My purpose, in brief, is to show how a consistent application of the Objectivist ethics leads inevitably to anarchism, rather than to the conclusion which most Objectivists and “students of Objectivism” themselves reach: limited, constitutional government.

Next in chronological order is “Anarchism and Justice,” which is unquestionably Roy’s best work on anarchism, if not his most influential. Published in four installments in 1971 (in the May, June, July-August, and October issues of The Individualist), this important and lengthy essay (“monograph” might be a better word) did not elicit the attention it deserved during Roy’s lifetime, because of the small circulation of the magazine in which it appeared.

I would like to call attention to two interesting features of “Anarchism and Justice.” The first is Roy’s methodological claim that “the burden of proof is always on the advocate of a State.”

It is important to note, in other words, that epistemologically anarchism is a negative proposition, not concerned per se with advocating positive institutions. Like atheism, it need prove nothing positive. All that it has to do is to consider the doctrines and arguments of the advocates of a State, and attempt to prove them to be invalid. If it succeeds in this attempt, then it has itself been established.3

Later in the same part, Roy wrote:

Thus we must start out as anarchists, and have the advocates of the State make out their case. Surely with a historical context to look at we must be skeptics concerning the alleged need for such an institution. And since mankind must have started out without a State, it had to be created historically as well. Thus on every ground, we must start out as anarchists to begin with!

I disagree with Roy on this issue, as indicated in Section III of this Introduction, in which I argue that anarchism, properly considered, is a positive theory of social order without government. I think Roy’s analogy between “negative atheism” (which I defended in Atheism: The Case Against God, as well as in two later books) and anarchism is misconceived, because anarchism is not merely lack of belief in the legitimacy of government. Rather, anarchism is a positive belief in the moral illegitimacy of government. Thus the anarchist, like the advocate of government, must defend his beliefs with moral arguments. Both sides share the burden of proof.

I don’t know what we would call someone who has no opinion, one way or the other, about the legitimacy of government, and so does not positively believe in the legitimacy of that institution, but to call such a person an “anarchist” would be highly peculiar, at best.

But I have no desire to argue with a friend who is no longer around to defend himself. I mention this disagreement in the hope that it will motivate some libertarians to consider some methodological issues that Roy considered important, and that he loved to talk about.

The second topic in “Anarchism and Justice” that merits special attention is Roy’s spirited critique of one of his heroes, the great economist Ludwig von Mises:

Directly and indirectly, Mises is a major influence on the libertarian movement. When representatives of classical liberalism are mentioned, it is he and his student F. A. Hayek who are chosen as key representatives. He, more than anyone else, except possibly Milton Friedman of the Chicago school of economists, is responsible for the convictions which most libertarians hold in economic theory. He is the major intellectual upon whom such organizations as the Foundation for Economic Education build their social philosophy. In short, Ludwig von Mises and his works serve as one of the major intellectual forces within the libertarian and conservative movements.

After subjecting the “utilitarian and anti-natural law” views of Mises to a withering critique and pointing out that “Mises vehemently opposes any attempts to define the limits of the State,” Roy locked into his Randian mode by contrasting the Misesian approach with “the Aristotelian-Thomistic view (as well as the view of Rand and, I believe, Rothbard) that ethics or morality is a science, that normative matters, or ought-statements, are a kind of facts, that they are statements of relations between a certain kind of entity (possessing the capacity of choice, and which can be harmed or benefitted by choices and actions) and the reality with which it deals.

The most intriguing and original aspect of Roy’s discussion is his contention that value-free economics is an illusion, since we cannot even distinguish between voluntary exchange and theft without a moral theory of property rights that distinguishes mine from thine. Although Roy focused on Mises, he knew this argument applied to Rothbard as well.

The thrust of my argument will be to maintain that a value-free economist cannot recommend anything whatever, with the corollary point being made that without reference to ethical principles, one cannot even define such key economic concepts as “voluntary exchange” and “State intervention.” If ethics is needed for the definitions of these concepts, then it will be seen that economics does in fact have to rely on ethics for at least these premises, and thus can never be purely value-free. The importance of this contention for economics as a science should be obvious.

Next in order of appearance is Roy’s last defense of anarchism: “The Invisible Hand Strikes Back,” originally delivered at the third Libertarian Scholars Conference in October 1975 and then published in the premiere issue (1977) of the Journal of Libertarian Studies. This is a detailed and occasionally light-hearted critique of Robert Nozick’s arguments for government, as presented in Anarchy, State, and Utopia.

This article, with its absence of rhetorical flourishes and Randian rhetoric, demonstrates Roy’s adaptability as a writer. That he was able to stand toe-to-toe with Nozick, one of the most highly regarded philosophers of his time, reinforced Roy’s standing as a first-class intellectual.

It is fitting that a person with the complex mind of a Roy Childs should leave a mystery behind him. In Roy’s case the mystery is why he later repudiated anarchism, even going so far as to call anarchism “an incoherent and therefore unreachable goal that inevitably corrupts any attempted strategy to achieve it.”

In 1987, in a review of The Market for Liberty, by Morris and Linda Tannehill, Roy wrote: “I am not an anarchist, but my 1969 ‘Open Letter to Ayn Rand’ was, and it helped stir up the debate, too.” According to Joan Kennedy Taylor:

During the early 1980s, Roy Childs mentioned to some of his friends that he had changed his mind about anarchism, and intended someday to write about the subject at length; exactly when and why this change occurred is unclear. He said to me once that the hostage crisis in Iran was a turning point for him, because it became obvious that when the Iranian students took the hostages, because of the de facto anarchy in that country, there was no one with whom to negotiate for their release; but he didn’t argue the point further. Many limited government libertarians, including myself, feel that their arguments were decisive in changing his mind, but we will never know. When Laissez Faire Books announced in 1988 that Childs would edit The Libertarian newsletter for them, he decided to put his new views on anarchism in the first issue, but neither the article nor the first issue was ever completed—this fragment [“Anarchist Illusions”] (which was found in his papers after his death) is as far as he got.4

Taylor’s claim that Roy had jettisoned his anarchism by the early 1980s is confirmed by Ronn Neff, who said that “Roy informed me of his change of mind in 1982.” But whereas Taylor reported Roy as saying that the Iranian hostage crisis was a turning point in his deconversion, Neff says that Roy “referred to the condition into which Lebanon had fallen after the shelling of Beirut” in 1982.5

Roy and I had long phone conversations, sometimes nearly every day, during the last three years of his life. The story he told me about his forthcoming article differed from the story he told to Taylor, though the two accounts are not necessarily incompatible. According to the version I heard, Roy had been asked by R. W. Bradford, the founder and editor of Liberty magazine, to write up his refutation so it could be published in Liberty. Roy wanted at least $500 for his efforts, but Bradford had a “policy” of not paying writers, so the project fell through. Roy was offended that Bradford refused to pay anything for what was obviously an article of tremendous significance, and I fully appreciated his reaction.

I often quizzed Roy during those final years about his “secret refutation” of anarchism, as we jokingly called it, pointing out that a refutation that is kept secret isn’t much of a refutation. But, again and again, Roy refused to spill the beans, explaining that he didn’t want to reveal anything before he had worked out all the details.

My feeling at the time was that Roy had promised something he could not deliver in a form credible enough to gain the respect, if not the agreement, of the very libertarians he had converted to anarchism many years earlier. This, I believe, is why Roy never wrote anything more than an introductory fragment that tells us very little. His own arguments for anarchism were simply too strong, and there was no way he could refute them without drastically overhauling other features of his moral and political philosophy. The earlier Roy had outwitted the later Roy, a victim of his own brilliance.

One day, not long before his death, I got Roy to open up a bit. After pleading with him to tell me the general outline of his refutation, he paused for a moment and then said, “Well, anarchism isn’t practical.”

It was at this point that I made one of the biggest mistakes of my life. Instead of remaining silent or asking Roy a respectful follow-up question, I shot back: “That’s it? Anarchism isn’t practical? That’s your secret refutation?”

After a long pause, Roy replied, “I don’t want to talk about this any more.”

I regret how I handled that situation to this day.

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


  1. Neff, “Notes and Commentary,” note 2, http://www.thornwalker.com/ditch/eboa_notes.htm#note2. Neff writes that Roy “makes the same mistake Krimerman and Perry make in giving the name of Godwin’s book. The correct title is Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and Its Influence on Modern Morals and Happiness. Another is that the same ellipsis appears in the Krimerman and Perry passage as appears in Childs’s quotation.” Neff’s first assertion is incorrect. Godwin used somewhat different titles in different editions of his book. Krimerman and Perry used the third edition, corrected, (1798) – specifically, the facsimile reprint published by University of Toronto Press (1946) – which is titled An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and Its Influence on Morals and Happiness. This is a minor point, however, and does not affect Neff’s argument. Neff also observes that Roy, while a student at SUNY in Buffalo, “took a special seminar on anarchism under Lewis Perry.” This may be where Roy first encountered Godwin’s Enquiry. 

  2. Near the beginning of EBA, Roy wrote: “Throughout this short essay, I shall assume that the reader is familiar, in essence, with the Objectivist theory of morality and politics.” This remark gives us an idea of what Roy viewed as a “short essay.” 

  3. Roy may have gotten this idea from Mortimer J. Adler. In his review of The Common Sense of Politics (Books for Libertarians, July 1972), Roy noted that “Adler recognizes that the burden of proof rests on the advocate of any government.” 

  4. Taylor, 179. 

  5. “Roy Childs on Anarchism,” Part 5, http://www.thornwalker.com/ditch/eboa_preface_5.htm. Though speculative, Neff’s explanation of what was really going on with Roy’s refutation of anarchism is, in my judgment, exactly on point, so I refer readers to his account for additional details. 

This is part of a series