Confessions of a Recovering Ideologue, Part I

This is the first of a perhaps interminable series I might call “How I Went So Wrong.” Now, I happen to be quoting below from Thomas Knapp and Roderick Long, but I don’t mean to be picking on them. In fact, I am explaining my own mistakes here – reading Knapp and Long recently just happened to have brought them to mind.

OK, so the first quote from Knapp I will note has to do with immigration, about which he writes:

“Let me get straight to the point: there is no difference in principle between a ‘national border’ and the turf claim of a street gang. None. Zero. Zip. Zilch. Nada.”

Well, since these things are quite obviously very different in many, many ways, we have to suss out what Knapp means by “in principle,” since obviously different things may always be the same “in principle” if one just selects the proper principle. Dying peacefully in one’s bed and being slowly eaten alive by fire ants while buried neck deep in desert sand are no different “in principle” if the principle in question is that of having a heartbeat at the end of the process or not. Here I suspect the principle Knapp is thinking of is something like, “Both rely on coercion to impose some restriction on the movement over land, the use of land, and so forth, on others who never agreed to the legitimacy of the borders which are held to set out where the restrictions apply.”

But consider the institution of private property, which anarcho-capitalists often hold out as ‘peaceful’ and ‘voluntary,’ as opposed to the ‘violent’ and ‘coercive’ State. Well, it is true that private property is peaceful – just so long as everyone agrees to follow the same property rules, in other words, its peacefulness depends upon its voluntariness. But the latter is often absent. Many, many times, people fail to agree on just who owns what – and then private property turns violent and coercive. Let’s say you believe wild lands should be free for all to roam, while I believe I own some woods in which I employ my truffle pigs. If this difference of opinion cannot be resolved, and the issue is of some importance to each of us, one of us will wind up coercing the other to accept his point of view.

The State is either peaceful and voluntary or violent and coercive in just the same way and for just the same reasons. As long as everyone agrees to and follows the State’s rules, there is no need for violence and coercion. It is only when there are disputes over the rules, or an unwillingness to follow them, that violence ensues.

This, of course, is the classical left anarchist complaint about anarcho-capitalism: since it doesn’t do away with private property, it doesn’t do away with coercion at all -- and the left anarchists are correct in pointing this out. (The problem with their solution is, of course, once you have done away with the State and with property, you have also done away with society.)

And so, when Roderick Long writes: “Bob Sanders wonders (May 8th) why we would fear Uncle Grady the tax assessor. Surely the answer is: because Uncle Grady’s edicts are ultimately backed up by threats of violence from Uncle Sam” – he has also stated a reason for fearing anyone laying claim to any property whatsoever – ultimately that claim is backed by threats of violence.

In any case, by the same principle Knapp and Long invoke, we can get straight to the point: there is no difference in principle between a ‘property line’ and the turf claim of a street gang. None. Zero. Zip. Zilch. Nada.

So this clearly isn’t a very useful principle.

In another article, Knapp states:

“’A little government’ is like ‘a little cancer.’ Once the state establishes a foothold in the body politic it invariably metastasizes, shutting down vital cultural organs and devouring every living thing in its path. The speed and directions of its spread varies from society to society, but the end result is never in doubt: If the cancer is not cut out, it will eventually kill its host."

It is hard to imagine what Knapp means by the ‘once’ in “once the state establishes a foothold in the body politic,” since, as Oakeshott put it, “Governing is an activity which is apt to appear whenever men are associated together… Indeed, it may be said that no durable association of human beings is possible in the absence of this activity… No large association has ever been known literally to govern itself, or in any direct manner to appoint its own rulers.”

Knapp’s suggestion that the State “invariably metastasizes,” and kills off society unless it is “cut out” is a little puzzling as well. States in the ancient world pretty much never metastasized, but perhaps the 3000 years of Egyptian culture just weren’t quite long enough to see the cancer beginning to spread. Odd, though, that the Egyptian culture seemed to fade precisely when the “cancer” of its State was cut out.

States only began undergoing this “invariable” process in the last few hundred years, which also happens to be the era in which ideology and perfectionism have come to the forefront in first European and eventually world politics. This does not strike me as coincidental: since ideologies attempt to replace the concrete, messy world of real politics with a vastly simplified abstraction, they always fail to achieve their goals, but, until the ideology is finally abandoned, the response is always to try even hard, meaning more money, more manpower, more legislation, and so on.

But anarchism is just a mutant strain of the ideological bacillus that is causing the rapid degeneration of most modern societies. It is certainly not the cure for its fellow bacilli. Rather, the anarchist depiction of the State as nothing more than a street gang only serves to increase the amount of State coercion. The actual way forward towards a less coercive society consists not in de-legitimizing the State, but in legitimizing it, in other words, promoting voluntary compliance with the State's laws in so far as they are just, and working to change them peacefully in so far as they are not. To the extent that anarchists recommend the State be ignored they thwart the former movement, and to the extent anarchists scorn participation in the current political process they prevent the latter.

Now, just how do smart people like Knapp and Long, and rather dull people like me, become ensnared in such obvious confusions? The answer is ideology – but more on that in our next installment.


  1. I am sure many people will flip out over this post (and its descendants), so let me ask that soon you clarify this type of thing:

    Is it so much that your picture of a just society has fundamentally changed, or is it just that you now realize the labels you would put on such a world are "politicians acting honorably and a good State"?

    For example, take the society I sketch out in Chaos Theory. Do you think that would "work" and if so, would your only disagreement be that my nexus of private judges--constrained ultimately by public opinion--would be "the government" in that world?

  2. "I am sure many people will flip out over this post..."

    Don't worry about it, Bob -- you know how you remarked as to how I've been cranky lately? That was just to drive all of the readers away before I started this series.

    In any case, let me relate your question to an experience of my own that helped in changing my mind: I would suggest that the government of Switzerland deserves the full support of the Swiss people, as it mostly does what a government ought to be doing, does it fairly well, and keeps the cost down.

  3. Anonymous7:20 PM

    You don't suspect the reason that governments use coercion (force being the defining characteristic of government aside) is that they are invariably controlled by people who, contrary to their rhetoric, wish to subordinate the individual interests of the public to their own self-interest?

    Edit: Ignore the listed URL in my profile, it's the only one that would work for the ridiculously complicated login. This is why I left Blogspot.

  4. "You don't suspect the reason that governments use coercion (force being the defining characteristic of government aside)..."

    So, you've sort of rolled right over the bit above where I showed that force is no more "the defining characteristic of government" than it is "defining characteristic of private property," now, didn't you?

  5. Testing comment response speed.

  6. I think these quotes from Knapp are unfortunate, but probably convenient as an anti-anarchist strawman.

    All coercion is not equal. The closer the entity doing the coercing is to the issue, having the most local knowledge, the more in line with the desires of the "consumers" of this coercion it is. That's why property boundaries make sense, and state -- especially gigantic state -- boundaries do not. The former is wrapped up in the lives and fortunes of those directly concerned. Whereas, for example, I don't even know what the border with Mexico looks like and since I am not a nationalist, couldn't care less who does what upon or across it.

  7. Jeremy, a strawman is an opponent one has constructed oneself. Are you claiming that Knapp is my sock puppet?

    Your "scope of coercion" argument is interesting, and I'll give it some thought. But it gets us no principled difference between states and property owners, and a small state might come out looking much better than Ted Turner by this criterion.

  8. Gene, so a Swiss pacifist should be "forced" to pay some of "his" money to the Swiss government to provide military defense that he doesn't think is just? (I'm not saying that as a gotcha, I want to hear your response to understand your position.)

  9. Bob, should an anarchocapistan communist be "forced" to pay some of "his" money to an anarchocapistan property owner when he doesn't think private ownership of land is just?

    I'm not being cute -- any social system, no matter hard it strives to be just, will have some dissidents who don't want to follow the rules. And then, yes, they have to be coerced. Ancapistan does not in any way eliminate that problem.

  10. "Odd, though, that the Egyptian culture seemed to fade precisely when the “cancer” of its State was cut out."

    You mean they stopped mass murdering people to build hunks of rock for God Kings?

    I think any anarchist is willing to comply with laws they consider just. That is not actually a point of contention. On the flip side, they're saying they have a right to ignore unjust laws. This is hardly even a radical idea these days, either.

    I was promised a confession, and only got a non-critique. I'm disappointed and hoping for more in future posts.

  11. "You mean they stopped mass murdering people to build hunks of rock for God Kings?"

    No, I meant their culture passed from history. In any case, I don't recall a single instance of "mass murder" in Egyptian history -- and certainly, the pyramids were not built by mass murder -- they were built by paid labor, in fact.

    It's incredible, when I bring this points up, how many distracting maneuvers are attempted. Nothing in this discussion hinged on whether the Egyptians were nice in the first place.

  12. The tone of this post closely follows my own political transformation in the last five years. Shedding ideology isn't easy - oftentimes you exchange one "belief" for another with little changing underneath the surface.

    I'd be curious about your present thoughts on immigration, in the context of the US/Arizona or even Switzerland, if you ever got around to thinking and writing about it.

  13. Gene,

    Interesting piece. I'll probably respond to it at article length in the near future (right now I'm outside drinking whiskey and working on a netbook -- bad for long-form stuff), but I wanted to get a quick "thank you for thinking and writing about this" in ASAP.

    Tom Knapp

  14. Tom, thanks for your kind words. Let me say, in return, that I would only bother to address at this length the libertarians whom I find to be most thoughtful and sincere in working out the implications of their views -- such as you and Roderick.

  15. Gene,

    It was my understanding that you were an anarchist. Was I mistaken? If not, does this post indicate that you have reconsidered (or are reconsidering) that philosophy?

  16. Anonymous9:56 PM

    Gene: I rolled over it because for it to be true you'd have to be able to define a government that didn't use coercion by some other factor.

    Now it won't take my Google login, so I had to use an AIM account I haven't accessed in several years.

  17. Anonymous10:12 PM

    BTW: about that Oakeshott that logic, what isn't a government?

    Is there some kind of timer on the word verification thing?

  18. "for it to be true you'd have to be able to define a government that didn't use coercion by some other factor."

    Sorry, assassin, I can't even sort out what that sentence means.

  19. Neverfox, I hope I am always rethinking everything I have previously thought. That is what I take it to mean to be a philosopher.

    I would say that now I am not against anarchy but against ideology, and so against ideological anarchism.

  20. Anonymous3:07 PM

    Simple: if coercion doesn't define government, then a government can exist without coercion. How? And what distinguishes it from any other organization, since coercion doesn't count?

  21. Well, assassin, I already answered question, but again: government can exist without coercion in the exact same way and to the exact same extent that private property can exist without coercion: to the extent everyone voluntarily respects its rules.

    Question 2: What would distinguish goverment then is that it would be the organization making the laws, rather than making bread or lug nuts.

  22. John, re Swiss -- see today's post.

  23. Anonymous4:35 PM

    Look, if all you're trying to say is "opinions differ on property & legitimacy of government actions", then fine, that is true. It's also meaningless. The point is how people choose to approach those differences. If you disagree with the view of Knapp, Long, or myself, whatever, but far as I can tell your comment stretches past "I disagree" to "...and if you don't, you're an unthinking nutjob".

  24. Assassin, something cannot be both true and meaningless. As far as "unthinking nutjob" goes, I'm sure (as I explicitly stated above) that Tom and Roderick aren't. But, if the shoe fits...

  25. I can only imagine I'm way too late to matter to you, but stuff on the internet *persists*... ;-)

    I've spent a fair amount struggling with what I think is the issue at the root of this post, and I think I have an answer for you.

    You have said above that "property" either depends on ideology, or violence (I'm trying to cut this to the key concepts, so I hope I got that right). But I think that there's a third possibility, thereal, historical, on-the-ground source of property: *trade*. The reason that A honors B's property boundaries isn't because B is stronger or because A is an "idealogue"; it's in return for B recognizing A's property boundaries. It is a perfectly rational, win/win, non-coercive trade, albeit not of "stuff" but of "promises" ("I promise not to mess with your stuff if you promise not to mess with mine, where we agree on whose stuff is whose"). The difference between my property lines, that my neighbors respect, and street gangs, is that my neighbors honor my property lines because *I honor theirs*. This contrasts strongly with a street gang, who do not trade the recognition of others' property boundaries to get others to recognize theirs.

    It is my hypothesis that with this understanding of "property", one does not end up with "AnCapistan", but does end up in anarchy [to be clear, I differentiate between "government" and the "state": the latter is a coercive entity, because like the street gang, it does not get its boundaries from trading recognition of others' boundaries, but rather from violence; "government" on the other hand is just some organizing central body of an organization, and resembles I think what you are envisioning. Of course, "government" in this sense can be a great societal force: collective, voluntary action is very powerful. The state is a much different beast.

    The result is a stateless world in which, *amongst themselves*, AnCaps can use their preferred definition of "property", LLs can use their different rules of property, etc.

    1. "But I think that there's a third possibility, the real, historical, on-the-ground source of property: *trade*"

      That is nonsense. Trade cannot possibly be the *source* of property, since one can only trade what is *already* property.

      And few question that, if something is justly yours, you can trade it. The disagreement is about what is justly yours.

      "I promise not to mess with your stuff if you promise not to mess with mine, where we agree on whose stuff is whose"

      Well, yes, obviously, if everyone agrees to all current property distributions and all laws about how it can be traded, and all other laws, then there is no political problem anymore.

      This is just as true of communism as of ancap, you might note.

      The *actual* political problem we face is quite different: there is massive disagreement about these matters, yet somehow we must try to keep civil peace.

    2. Oh, and how will this work:

      "The result is a stateless world in which, *amongst themselves*, AnCaps can use their preferred definition of "property", LLs can use their different rules of property, etc."

      How is that supposed to work if, for instance, per an ancaps definition of property, he owns the land between the hill and the creek, but, per my definition of property, *I* own the land between the hill and the creek? Which each just pretend the other isn't there?

    3. Why would people be more impulsively violent in a free society, presumably brought about through attachment parenting? Your essay is lacking evidence for violence and coercive behavior being more prevalent among property disputes in a free society versus one with monopolized courts. I think the idea your essay was meant to convey is that "law is basically what the majority of people agree it is", and that's true, but when we speak about a given type of society, it's kind of assumed that people understand and abide by the "laws", or in this case, their negative rights.

  26. Gene, I recently had that exact type of dispute with a neighbor of mine. We compared blueprints and records, and I won a few feet of land. We did not start a fist fight. Why you think fist fights would happen in a free society is beyond me. If anything, given that the whole attachment parenting thing is the main driver, a free society would be less impulsively violent.

    1. And Adrien, what you think my post is about is beyond me! I don't think I mentioned anything concerning lots of "fist fights" in a "free society"!

  27. "private property turns violent and coercive."

    Here is the statement in question. You seem to be unfamiliar with the differences between "peaceful" slavery and slavery.

    1. I guess I am unfamiliar with it: I have no idea what you are talking about.


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