Having begun my life in the libertarian movement as a bit of purist myself, I have become more pragmatic over time.
For example, I have come to a greater appreciation that the libertarian movement needs to be careful and prudent. However, in recent months, it has struck me that this call for pragmatism – for an emphasis on gradual changes that will not alienate the masses – is being undermined by a particular group: the anarcho-capitalists.
I do not mean all anarcho-capitalists of course, but there are a considerable number committed to opposing any move towards pragmatism, seeing it as a betrayal of liberty.
This refusal to be pragmatic is deeply harmful to the cause of freedom since it pushes people away from the libertarian movement and reduces the electability of libertarian candidates – without such support and such candidates, there will be fewer pro-liberty advocates in the legislatures.
How might this be so?
The main example of how the anarcho-capitalists often alienate people is through a refusal to allow any form of taxation.
For many of this political persuasion, reducing taxation is not enough; it must be abolished outright, and – for more radical advocates – it must be done immediately.
Now, I sympathize with this. Given taxation is theft; it would seem moral to do away with it outright and immediately. However, to the vast majority of people, the outright abolition of taxation is an obvious absurd decision and they are not wrong.
If the US abolished tax, it would default on its debt.
This is not something to view in the abstract; it would trigger an economic crisis worse than the Great Depression. This is not a controversial view among economists. Iceland provides an insightful case study from recent times, though the effect on the US would be magnified due to size.
If the US were to default, there would be a nearly $20 trillion black hole in the global economy (to put that into perspective, that is more than the GDP of the whole of the European Union), this would trigger inflation (likely hyper-inflation) as the dollar would quickly depreciate, unemployment would surge, investors would flee, and a major global knock-on would occur, because the US economy is an internationalist economy.
Likewise, it would default on its public spending.
The army would cease to be, courts would shut down, police officers would be laid off, schools would close, the millions dependent on welfare would become homeless, and so on. This is inevitable because there would be no finances to pay for them. Again, the general public know this which is why they see the anarcho-capitalist proposal of the outright abolition of taxation as absurd.
No-one wants to experience a default of either kind since it would put the US on par with the Venezuela for quality of life. Couple that with other absurd ideas often entertained by anarcho-capitalists, like the abolition of driver’s licenses, and you have a cocktail of ideas that will keep libertarian candidates out of political office and out of legislatures where they can make real changes. I appreciate anarcho-capitalists dislike of government, but it is the only way that one is likely to make gains for freedom at this time.
Anarcho-capitalists often retort that, after this initial devastation (which, in fact, would likely never recover to pre-crash levels under their system), a freer society could be built without tax and government. However, the public likewise see this as a delusion.
If you have no government, and you need tax for that, natural rights are in peril. You cannot have your property rights upheld because there are no police to do so. You cannot have your court case heard as there are no judges. Indeed, even if you had judges, you would have no laws for them to enforce, for in the absence of government there would be no legal codification of natural rights.
The solution often proposed is that you could privatize these functions in a free market – but again, this idea is utterly unconvincing to most.
If you have a free market of judicial systems, there is no law.
Unless a court holds power over you, it can do nothing. How would the courts get power over you in an anarcho-capitalist system?
Are they chosen by the mutual consent of the population?
If they are, you just have established government; a system whereby a majority consensus empowers certain individuals to use force against others.
If not, then they rely on the use of coercion, of force, without individual consent. As such, the existence of a fair judiciary is incompatible with anarcho-capitalism.
This is no small problem: without a fair judiciary (to which everyone is held to account) there is effectively no law, and our natural rights and liberty are at risk. There is no legal redress for the violation of those rights.
This only scratches the surface of the problems with anarcho-capitalism.
It is not my intention to write in great detail here, but the central point is clear: anarcho-capitalist purism is as idealistic as Marxist utopianism. This utopian purism completely undermines the libertarian movement.
I, as well as other libertarians, constantly find ourselves having to say ‘I’m a libertarian, but not that kind of libertarian.’
The motto ‘taxation is theft’, while true, is far outside the Overton window as it is. The last thing the libertarian movement needs is for radical anarcho-capitalists to push the cause of liberty further away from it.
I have for a long time now tried a more conciliatory tone with anarcho-capitalists because I do understand where they are coming from (philosophically speaking), but there is a real need for the libertarian movement to demarcate itself from those anarcho-capitalists who refuse to unify around a pragmatic, pro-liberty agenda.
The libertarian movement is increasingly being identified with this group, and we must break away from that equivocation. If the movement cannot do that, it will be perpetually regarded as a band of lunatics, committed to ideas that most people know would never work in reality and which would – if implemented – cause tremendous harm and risk huge losses to liberty.
I acknowledge I will be vilified for taking this view, ‘Statist,’ ‘Commie,’ ‘Sell-out,’ and so on, will no doubt be terms of abuse hurled at me. However, ask yourself, have I said anything unreasonable?
All I have said is that the libertarian movement needs to unify around a pragmatic, pro-liberty agenda and demarcate itself from radical anarcho-capitalists who are increasingly bringing the movement into ill-repute.
Does that make me a ‘statist,’ a ‘communist,’ or a ‘sell-out’? No – in fact, I’m following in the footsteps of most great libertarian thinkers here.
I’m all for free markets, for civil liberties, and so on, but government has a (small) role, and that necessitates low taxation.
Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman supported the existence of small government. Must we call them ‘commies’ too? Anarcho-capitalists need to either get on board with a pragmatic and moderate agenda that introduces pro-liberty changes at a pace that does not undermine the movement, or get off the libertarian train; because as it is, they are pulling the movement in a separate path.
Libertarianism should be about fiscally responsible government with great respect for rights and freedom – that’s an idea people can get behind, that can help make real gains for freedom, and we cannot let that be hijacked.
* Matthew James Norris is a history and philosophy graduate. He is currently undertaking historical research on Henry III and early modern social history.
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