October 2, 2012 essays

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Introducing Anarchism & Justice, by Roy A. Childs, Jr., Part 3

George H. Smith tackles several misconceptions about the theory of anarchism—and contrasts it with the condition of anarchy.

Every reader is aware of the strong negative reactions evoked in most people when they hear the words “anarchy,” “anarchism,” and “anarchist.” More often than not “anarchy” has functioned in philosophy as the political equivalent of hell, a model of unending and unendurable social agony—a perpetual war of every man against every man, as Thomas Hobbes put it in his famous account of the anarchistic state of nature. A condition of anarchy, we are told, is so terrible, so destructive, that virtually any kind of government, however brutal or despotic, is preferable to the social poison of anarchy.

It is for this reason that readers unfamiliar with the early anarchist writings of Roy Childs may be reluctant to take his arguments seriously, if they read them at all. This dismissal is more likely to occur now than when his articles were written (1968-1975)—an era when the libertarian movement was in its formative stage and had little to lose, politically speaking. But now that libertarian ideas have become more respectable, and now that many respectable people (including politicians, columnists, and media commentators) call themselves “libertarians,” the professional and political risks involved in discussing the anarchistic implications of libertarian theory can be considerable.

Despite these risks, I strongly recommend that all libertarians read what Roy had to say about anarchism—even if they must do so at night, under the sheets, with a flashlight. The interest of Roy Childs in anarchism was no mere exercise in radical chic. His explorations of anarchism as a moral and viable social system were motivated by an intense interest in political philosophy and by a desire to understand the nature of freedom and government. It is virtually impossible not to learn something from reading Roy, whatever one’s opinions of his conclusions may be. His passion, though sometimes over-the-top, was authentic and contagious. Liberty, for Roy, was a very personal matter. As the distinguished psychiatrist Thomas Szasz put it:

For Roy, liberty was not a means but a personal end….Roy did not belong to his age. He belonged to an age that never was and probably never will be….Roy loved liberty, like a lover loves his beloved.1

The theory of limited government has a long and distinguished provenance in classical liberal and libertarian thought—a tradition for which Roy Childs had great respect. It was because Roy agreed with Ayn Rand about the need for a consistent and integrated political philosophy that he attempted to apply her ideas more consistently than he believed she had, and he did so primarily by integrating her epistemological and moral theories with the anarchistic ideas of Murray Rothbard, who was also influenced by Rand.

Although Rothbard was an anarchist before he came to know Rand during the 1950s, and although he disagreed with her on a number of issues (especially in matters of foreign policy and history), he was impressed, to say the least, by Rand’s overall philosophy, especially her approach to epistemology and ethics.

In an enthusiastic letter to Rand (3 October 1957), Rothbard praised Atlas Shrugged as “the greatest novel ever written.”2 He continued:

To find one person that has carved out a completely integrated rational ethic, rational epistemology, rational psychology, and rational politics, all integrated one with the other, and then to find each with the other portrayed through characters in action, is a doubly staggering event. And I am surprised that it astonishes even I who was familiar with the general outlines of your system. What it will do the person stumbling upon it anew I cannot imagine. For you have achieved not only the unity of principle and person, and of reason and passion, but also the unity of mind and body, matter and spirit, sex and politics … in short, to use the old Marxist phrase, “the unity of theory and practice.”

After acknowledging Rand’s “enormous influence” on his own thinking, Rothbard wrote:

When I first became interested in ideas, my first principle that I had from the start was a burning love of human freedom, and a hatred for aggressive violence of man upon man. I always liked economics, and was inclined to theory, but found in my graduate economics courses that I felt all the theories offered were dead wrong, but I could not say why. Mises’s Human Action was the next great influence upon me, because I found in it a great rational system of economics, each interconnected logically, each following, as in Aristotelian philosophy, from a basic and certain axiom: the existence of human beings. When I first met you, many years ago, I was a follower of Mises, but unhappy about his antipathy to natural rights, which I “felt” was true but could not demonstrate. You introduced me to the whole field of natural rights and natural law philosophy, which I did not know existed, and month by month, working on my own as I preferred, I learned and studied the glorious natural rights tradition. I also learned from you about the existence of Aristotelian epistemology, and then I studied that, and came to adopt it wholeheartedly. So that I owe you a great intellectual debt for many years, the least of which is introducing me to a tradition of which four years of college and three years of graduate school, to say nothing of other reading, had kept me in ignorance.

In later years, after a bitter and tumultuous split with Ayn Rand and her circle, Rothbard never again acknowledged the “enormous influence” that Rand had on his intellectual development.3 On the contrary, he ridiculed Rand and her associates as an ignorant “cult.”4 Be that as it may, this was not his opinion in 1957, when a 31-year-old Rothbard wrote to Rand:

When, in the past, I heard your disciples refer to you in grandiloquent terms—as one of the greatest geniuses who ever lived, as giving them a “round universe”—I confess I was repelled: surely this was the outpouring of a mystic cult. But now, upon reading Atlas Shrugged, I find I was wrong. This was not wild exaggeration but the perception of truth. You are one of the great geniuses of the ages, and I am proud that we are friends.

Roy Childs read Ayn Rand while in high school, before he read Rothbard, and her influence on him is evident in his very first articles, published at age nineteen. (The influence of Nathaniel Branden’s theory of psychology is also apparent.) In his unpublished manuscript “The Epistemological Basis of Anarchism” (discussed below), Roy went so far as to argue that Rand’s epistemology, especially her contextual theory of knowledge, logically entails anarchism. If Rothbard provided the superstructure of Roy’s ideology, Rand provided the foundation—so it would not be an exaggeration to say that Ayn Rand, not Murray Rothbard, was the philosophical fountainhead of Roy’s anarchism.

As I noted previously, libertarian minarchists need not embroil themselves in the fine points of anarchist theory, if they have better things to do. Even those libertarians with strong anarchistic sentiments may prefer to tag their views with a different label, such as “voluntaryism” or “autarchy.” Or some libertarians may rest content with the general term “libertarian” and not get any more specific, lest they provoke the ominous question, “Are you an anarchist?”

Such embarrassments, however important they may be on practical level, should not inhibit our investigation of what Rothbardian anarchism, as defended by Roy Childs and many others, does and does not entail. For example, contrary to what “anarchism” suggests to many people, Rothbardian anarchism stresses the crucial importance of the rule of law and the need to have courts of justice and other agencies to protect and enforce individual rights. The crux of the dispute between Randian minarchists and Rothbardian anarchists is whether these various agencies need be bundled into a single monopolistic institution called “government,” which functions as the final arbiter and enforcer of individual rights in a given geographical area. Roy maintained that any such coercive monopoly must necessarily initiate force against innocent people who might wish nothing more than to protect their rights by other means, such as by enlisting the services of a market agency. Hence Roy’s use of the term “free market anarchism.”

We must clear the air of myths and misconceptions about controversial terms before we can hope to discuss them reasonably, so I will begin by clarifying some concepts that play key roles in the kind of anarchism that Roy Childs defended.

Note that I refer to concepts, not to words, which are merely the concrete symbols of concepts. This is important because dictionaries commonly assign the word “anarchy” to at least two different concepts: “1. Absence of any form of political authority. 2. Political disorder and confusion.” (The American Heritage Dictionary.) Because these two concepts are attached to the word “anarchy,” many people assume that the concepts themselves are identical and interchangeable. Most people cannot conceive of social order without government—they lack the appropriate concept—so they assume that anarchy always entails chaos, violence, and the like.

This helps to explain how the implacable opponents of anarchy respond to an uncomfortable fact, namely, that governments are the greatest perpetrators of violence and murder. To this we are told that bad governments, or governments badly administered, tend to degenerate into anarchy. (This confusion goes back at least to Aristotle.) We thus have two radically different concepts—society without government and society with a bad government—which have been united by the same linguistic symbol, the same hellish word: “anarchy.”

The word “anarchy” refers to a kind of society: a society without government, or state.5 This is a description, not an evaluation. To describe a society as anarchistic means that social order exists in some fashion and to some degree without government, for this is implicit in the meaning of “society,” but it does not tell us anything more specific.

An anarchistic society may be primitive or advanced, violent or peaceful, just or unjust, desirable or undesirable. The anarchist does not endorse every manifestation of anarchy, any more than the defender of government endorses every kind of government.

To determine the nature of a good anarchistic society is the business of anarchism, which is a theory of social order without government. This distinction between anarchy and anarchism is crucial. The former denotes a society, any society, without a state, whether good or bad. The latter denotes a particular point of view—a defense and justification of the good society which includes, as a fundamental precondition, the absence of a state. As stated previously, not every form of anarchy is acceptable to the advocate of anarchism. To eliminate government may remove a major source of injustice and violence in society, but this does not mean that justice and social order will automatically fill the void. In other words, anarchism regards the absence of government as a necessary but not sufficient condition of an ideal society.

To summarize: “anarchy” is a negative term that refers to a social condition—the absence of government. “Anarchism,” in contrast, is a positive term—a theory of justice and social order that rejects government for moral, economic, religious and/or social reasons. Anarchism is a theory about what ought to be, not merely a statement about what is.

We can now approach the meaning of “anarchist,” the third term of our trinity. As indicated previously, the anarchist, qua social philosopher, subscribes to a theory of anarchism, but he does not necessarily endorse all types of anarchy. The rejection of government is not a premise from which the anarchist begins; it is a conclusion based on various ideas about human nature, moral values, social order, institutions, and political power. The label “anarchist” refers to a person who rejects government, but it does not indicate why a person rejects government, nor does it specify what the anarchist means by “government,” nor does it suggest what an anarchistic society would look like (its values, institutions, and so forth), nor does it indicate how or when an anarchistic society can be brought about (if at all). Many variables and permutations are involved here, which lead to radically different kinds of anarchism. To refer merely to a “society without government” tells us nothing about what that society should look like.

It may help to take the edge off the notion of a society without government if we briefly examine what two of America’s founders, Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson, had to say about this notion. Thomas Paine argued that “society performs for itself almost every thing which is ascribed to government.” Governments, “so far from being always the cause or means of order, are often the destruction of it.”

Government is no farther necessary than to supply the few cases to which society and civilization are not conveniently competent; and instances are not wanting to show, that every thing which government can usefully add thereto, has been performed by the common consent of society without government.6

To buttress his contention that government is a convenience, not a necessity, Paine observed that some American communities during the Revolution functioned quite well without any government at all:

For upwards of two years from the commencement of the American war, and to a longer period in several of the American States, there were no established forms of government. The old governments had been abolished, and the country was too much occupied in defense, to employ its attention in establishing new governments; yet during this interval, order and harmony were preserved as inviolate as in any country in Europe.7

And again:

During the suspension of the old governments in America, both prior to and at the breaking out of hostilities, I was struck with the order and decorum with which everything was conducted; and impressed with the idea, that a little more than what society naturally performed, was all the government that was necessary.8

The view that government is a practical convenience rather than a moral necessity was also expressed by Thomas Jefferson, especially in his numerous references to anarchistic Indian communities. A serious student of Native American culture, Jefferson attributed the highly decentralized nature of Indian communities to “the circumstances of their having never submitted themselves to any laws, any coercive power, any shadow of government. Their only controls are their manners, and [their] moral sense of right and wrong.”9 Since Jefferson believed that freedom is best preserved in decentralized societies, he was naturally sympathetic to societies without government, as he indicated in a letter to Edward Carrington (16 Jan. 1787):

I am convinced that those societies (as the Indians), which live without government, enjoy in their general mass an infinitely greater degree of happiness than those who live under the European governments. Among the former, public opinion is in the place of law, and restrains morals as powerfully as laws ever did anywhere.10

In a letter to James Madison (30 Jan.1787), Jefferson divided societies into three basic “forms,” one of which was “society “without government, as among our Indians.” Although a bit uncertain about the matter, Jefferson suggested that a society without government may be the best ideal form, however impractical it may be for large societies.11

Paine and Jefferson were not anarchists, of course, and they didn’t use the word “anarchy” in their discussions of societies without government. (The word carried the same negative connotations in their day as it does now.) My point is that neither man displayed the knee-jerk reaction to the idea of a society without government that is so common today. Both took the idea seriously, and both believed that societies without government are viable and even preferable in some circumstances, especially when despotism in some form is the alternative. In short, Paine and Jefferson would have been more receptive to the ideas of Roy Childs than are most modern readers.


  1. “Remembering Roy,” in Taylor, x. 

  2. For this and one other letter from Rothbard to Rand, see Journal of Libertarian Studies 21, no 4 (Winter 2007), 11–16, http://mises.org/journals/jls/21_4/21_4_3.pdf

  3. I cannot here discuss the various personal feuds that developed among libertarians and Objectivists during the early years of the movement. Suffice it to say that it would be naïve to suppose that such conflicts had no long-range ideological effects. Whereas some of those “splits,” such as that which occurred between Nathaniel Branden and Ayn Rand in 1968, may have had beneficial consequences (e.g., by opening up the libertarian movement to new ideas), a number of disputes, such as that between Roy Childs and Murray Rothbard (which began in the latter half of the 1970s), got very ugly and only served to weaken the movement. 

  4. See Rothbard’s 1972 essay, “The Sociology of the Ayn Rand Cult.” To my knowledge, this scathing piece was initially circulated privately, in manuscript form. I first read it in 1972, after Roy Childs loaned me a copy. In a review of Nathaniel Branden’s memoirs, Judgment Day (Liberty, Sept. 1989), Rothbard claimed that “the problem with Rand, Branden, and the rest of the crew is that these were dazzlingly ignorant people.” Branden and the rest of the crew aside, this remark certainly does not agree with Rothbard’s 1957 assessment of Ayn Rand. For my reply to some of Rothbard’s allegations, see “Nathaniel Branden’s Judgment Day: Reviewing the Reviewers,” New Libertarian 5, no. 5 (June 1990), 4-5, http://www.anthonyflood.com/smithbranden.htm

  5. Various distinctions, which I cannot discuss here, have been made between “government” and “state,” but for the purposes of my discussion I shall treat these terms as synonyms. 

  6. Rights of Man, Part Second (1792), in The Life and Major Writings of Thomas Paine, ed. Philip S. Foner (Citadel Press, 1948), 357-59. 

  7. Ibid., 358. 

  8. Ibid., 406. 

  9. Notes on the State of Virginia, in The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Adrienne Koch and William Peden (Modern Library, 1944), 221. 

  10. Ibid., 412. 

  11. Ibid., 413. Jefferson claimed that societies without government are “inconsistent with any great degree of population.” Anarchistic societies rely mainly on the sanction of public opinion instead of on coercive laws, and the effectiveness of public opinion decreases as a population increases. 

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