Anarchism: All Based on a Joke

Edmund Burke's A Vindication of Natural Society is a satire, intending to ridicule Bolingbroke's deism with what Burke thought would be a great reductio: "Bolingbroke, if your right, then we should get rid of government as well!"

But then William Godwin decided to read Burke's satire at face value, and thus anarchism was born from a joke taken seriously.

Joe Sobran tried to explain this away: "[Burke's] argument for anarchy was too powerful, passionate, and cogent to be a joke." Sobran contends that "many" have doubted the satirical intention of Burke's work. By "many" he means... Murray Rothbard.

But as John Weston noted, not a single Burke scholar agrees with Rothbard, who notably was not a Burke scholar. The evidence against Rothbard is overwhelming: Burke himself declared the work a satire, and he was already expressing his typically conservative views at roughly the same time as the pamphlet's publication.

Why did Rothbard attempt this claim, in the face of all Burke scholarship? I think the reason is pretty obvious: The alternative to this ahistorical conclusion is that the most powerful, passionate, and cogent arguments for anarchism are... a joke.


  1. Just how bad do Rothbard's historical interpretations get? I've seen him claim that the Diggers and the Levellers were libertarians, that common law wasn't connected to the government (not sure if that's possible), and all sorts of muddled rubbish.

    1. He didn't care about history: he only cared about his cause. So he used it however would forward the cause.

    2. I've had Rothbardians tell me the common law would still apply in Ancapistan. How is that logically possible?
      It's a pretty gutsy move, the appeal to ignorance inherent in claiming that Lilburne and Overton were anarchists.

    3. "He didn't care about history: he only cared about his cause. So he used it however would forward the cause."

      But what was "the cause"? Because for all of his rambling about " consistency", he seems to have been a bigger flip flopper than Romney. Cheering South Vietnam's collapse into communism, doing a 180 on free trade and immigration right around the time he supported Buchanan for president, bashing IP laws while developing his own ideas on copyright, heaping praise on the South while attacking slavery, and so on. Was he just a demagoging rabble rouser?

    4. In reply to Ken B.:
      I've been told that
      •Property rights can only exist in "scarce resources" and that "property rights" in the electromagnetic spectrum are compatible with this.
      •Fraud is violence.
      •Ron Paul's domain name dispute (the one where he had to go to a UN agency) was really just arbitration with a private organization and therefore compatible with "the free market".
      •That "anarcho-monarchism" is not a contradiction in terms.
      •That anarchy is really just the absence of "the state" and the presence of multiple governments.

      These people have zero cognitive dissonance over these things and have no understanding of law.

    5. Well, he would make alliances with whoever he thought was anti-state at the time, and include some of their pet issues in the libertarian project.

    6. That probably explains all the weirdness his movement picked up (i.e., crypto-nationalists, MRA nutters, quasi-socialists, theocrats, Birchers, etc.).

    7. Not all of it. Not the neo-confederate stuff. Much of the "liberty movement" is driven by a resentment of lost entitlement. Thomas Woods and his admirers fit this category.
      If you want to express a sense of racial superiority in the modern world you cannot without great cost do so directly. But you can find examples that allowed you to speak esoterically. The like-minded understand, but you can disclaim any overt meanings. You can inveigh against the 14th amendment, and when pressed .. cite the parts that have not applied in 80 years. You can hate on Lincoln, and your fellow travelers will get the message. We see that and more from the Woods/Paul crowd.

    8. The "paleo" crowd is probably the most anti-freedom crowd I've met in America. Just reading some of their views with regard to bankruptcy and debt gives me the shivers. The scary part is that I feel like I've been slightly swayed over to their side on these issues. I can't muster up the same amount of anger over states' rights that I used to.

      People like Woods aren't anti-government. They just want it local so they don't have to pay any taxes to the federal government.

  2. I hadn't heard that before. Amusing.

  3. One point that Weston concedes has drawn notice from later scholars such as Isaac Kramnick and David Bromwich: there are indeed elements in the Vindication that appear to represent Burke's sincere views, notably, as Rothbard argues, the passages on law and lawyers. It's also the case, as Weston notes, that the Vindication has confused lay readers from the beginning, with many accepting it as a sincere work, even a wise one. It most certainly is a satire, but it's also sometimes persuasive when it "should" be repulsive and is evidently mixed with some truth and sincerity. So is it a failed satire, a little too convincing? An ambiguous satire revealing some ambiguity or mixed feelings on the part of its author, a man who would one day stun his Whig friends by seemingly betraying his lifelong interest in justice to turn counterrevolutionary? Rothbard oversimplifies a very complex figure--one who can't be reduced to an ideological caricature of any kind--but he does draw attention to some interesting difficulties, which later Burke scholars have not dismissed, even though they certainly haven't accepted Rothbard's view.

    1. I'm interested in why Rothbard gets as much attention as he does from The American Conservative. Do decentralist conservatives have a history with libertarians?


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