The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism

Individualist Anarchism

Anarchism is the theory that there should be no ruling powers. Because libertarianism is a theory of limited government, some have argued that its logical extension (or reductio ad absurdum, depending on one’s stance) is the absence of all government. Libertarian or individualist anarchism needs to be distinguished from socialist or collectivist anarchism. From the 1840s to the 1860s, anarchism was largely associated with the same social-revolutionary movements that produced Marxism. Although Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, in his 1840 work, What Is Property? maintained that all social arrangements should be based on voluntary contractual agreement, he also regarded property as theft. This idea is hardly the answer one expects to hear from a libertarian. The differences between individualist and collectivist anarchists are sometimes difficult to determine with any specificity. Mikhail Bakunin advocated public ownership of the means of production, yet took issue with Marx over the issues of authority and liberty. In the 1890s, Peter Kropotkin echoed Marx’s slogan “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” and saw the state as an agent of moral corruption. Max Stirner, in contrast, was a radical individualist. A contemporary of Marx and Bakunin, Stirner rejected the notion of society, instead advocating a loose union of egoists.

The crucial difference between the anarchism of the left and that of the right seems to rest on their understanding of the notion of rights and of man’s nature. The left appears to view anarchism as the logical result of the social nature of man, freely joining into collective, yet decentralized, associations. The right sees anarchism as the extension of the priority of individual liberty. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the American anarchists tended to be of the individualist variety. From Josiah Warren in the 1850s to Lysander Spooner and Benjamin Tucker in the 1870s and 1880s, to Albert Jay Nock in the 1930s, the development of anarchism in America has been an integral part of libertarian history. The individualist ideals of these early writers formed part of an intellectual landscape where the ideas of liberty could be developed free from any neo-Hegelian notions of history’s progress, giving rise to such modern individualist anarchists as Murray Rothbard and David Friedman. In American libertarian thought, the problem has not been so much whether individualism or collectivism formed the basis for anarchism, but whether the priority of individual liberty could be reconciled with a minimal state or if it required its absence.

Individualist anarchists argue that there are no functions of government that could not be handled by market arrangements. Minimal-state libertarians typically argue that individual liberty is the predominant value in the political realm, and therefore government intervention in the economy or in people’s personal lives is unwarranted. If a person’s conduct is not in violation of the rights of others, then the government should not regulate or prohibit it. Nevertheless, the government has a legitimate, if minimal, role in human affairs. Although these minimalists concede that most goods and services can more effectively be provided by the market, the government is needed to operate courts where disputes can be resolved and run police agencies to keep people safe. The individualist anarchist, in contrast, argues that these services too can be provided by voluntary market arrangements; hence, they sometimes prefer the label anarcho-capitalists. Among anarcho-capitalists, Proudhon’s claim that property is theft is replaced with the notion that taxation is theft because tax money is collected coercively and used to fund the provision of goods and services for which at least some taxpayers are not prepared to pay. If all goods and services can be provided through voluntary market arrangements, then even the minimal state is rights-violating. The state becomes, in this view, a monopolist whose monopoly is secured through the use of force. Like the classical liberal or minimal-state libertarians, individualist anarchists see individual liberty as the paramount political value and agree that the market is the most efficient provider of goods and services. Having been convinced of the bankruptcy of central planning, they have concluded that all services, even those traditionally provided by the state, should be open to the competition of the market.

As an example, because the function of law courts is to provide the resolution of disputes, one can imagine more than one provider offering this service. Rather than being forced to pay taxes to the government as the sole provider of this service, one can imagine people having several dispute-resolution companies to choose from, which would be paid by those who use them. These companies would prosper by cultivating a reputation for fairness and efficiency, and they would presumably have agreements with each other to adjudicate interagency conflicts. Similar market arrangements are envisioned for policing services. Of course there already are private “police” services in shopping centers, universities, and the like. But these police services are currently additions to the state-run police agencies. Anarchists hold that there could be more than one such firm providing the services of protection and enforcement. Of course, the plausibility of privatizing these core functions of the minimal state is precisely the bone of contention between minimal-state libertarians and individualist anarchists. But these groups seem to have more in common ideologically (e.g., the priority of individual liberty, the importance of property rights) than do individualist anarchists and socialist or collectivist anarchists. A minimal-state libertarian might argue that the minimal state is necessary for the basic functioning of civil society, although its scope must be limited to preventing harm to others, whereas the individualist anarchist argues that no forcible monopoly is consistent with individual liberty, and hence all the state’s functions must be voluntary.


Further Readings

Barnett, Randy. The Structure of Liberty. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Benson, Bruce. The Enterprise of Law. San Francisco: Pacific Research Institute, 1990.

Friedman, David. The Machinery of Freedom. New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1973.

Nock, Albert Jay. Our Enemy the State. San Francisco: Fox & Wilkes, 1994 [1935].

Nozick, Robert. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. New York: Basic Books, 1974.

Rothbard, Murray. For a New Liberty. New York: Macmillan, 1973.

———. “Society without a State.” Nomos 19 (1978).

Sanders, John T., and Jan Narveson, eds. For and against the State: New Philosophical Readings. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1996.

Spooner, Lysander. No Treason. Larkspur, CO: Pine Tree Press, 1965 [1870].

Wolff, Robert Paul. In Defense of Anarchism. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1970.

Originally published .