New libertarianism books

Two new books show that the idea of a capitalist anarchy is still very much alive.

book review score+3

The problem of political authority
An examination of the right to coerce and the duty to obey
Michael Huemer
Palgrave, 2013, 365 pages

Reviewed by T Nelson

In this book, philosopher Michael Huemer, like Robert Nozick 39 years earlier, argues in favor of a libertarian state by challenging the collectivist ethicism of John Rawles. But from there the two libertarians take starkly different paths.

Nozick started with a single principle, the Nonaggression Principle (“Don't hurt people and don't take their stuff”—there's even a popular book by that title now), and tried to show that only a minimalist state was consistent with it. By contrast, Huemer starts with an entire smorgasbord of principles, and argues for no state at all: capitalist anarchism à la Murray Rothbard.

Huemer rejects Ayn Rand's egoism, Nozick's ethical absolutism, and Jan Narveson's metaethics. Individual rights, he says, may be overridden when the situation demands. He calls this “common-sense morality.” His plan is to combine three things:

  1. The nonaggression principle,
  2. The idea that government is coercion, and
  3. The principle of skepticism of authority.

That third one is his common-sense morality. “Particular kinds of actions,” he says, “must be judged using our ordinary ethical intuitions.” As an example, he says if you are faced with a choice between running over a child or a dog, you should run over the dog. If you see a child drowning, and if it's not too much risk, you should try to save the child. Use your judgment. Do your own thing, man.

Sounds reasonable, although one might suspect that everybody doing their own thing was what got us all these laws in the first place. And it still doesn't explain where we're supposed to get all this “common sense” of which he speaks.

The general idea is that if it's acceptable for a private individual to use force in a given situation, it would be acceptable for the state to do so. Because coercion it is never acceptable for a private individual, it is therefore never acceptable for a state, either. Except when it's necessary to prevent something bad from happening.

That's a pretty big loophole. Can you coerce someone else to stop eating potato chips to prevent them from having a heart attack? If so, who pays for this coercion? Governments, he says, should resort to taxation if serious good-faith efforts at voluntary financing fail [p.148], and taxation was necessary to prevent a societal catastrophe.

But ‘societal catastrophe’ is the entire history of mankind. Starting from the drowning child scenario, Huemer tries to use a reductio ad absurdum to argue that the state has no right to coerce people into paying taxes to alleviate poverty. But here the lack of a solid ethical footing turns into quicksand, and Huemer struggles to get back to his original idea, which is that there is no such thing as valid political authority.

So ... moving right along ... what would a society with no authority look like? Here he's influenced by Bryan Caplan, who said that voters in a democracy act irrationally. So democracy is utopian, because to make it work would require changes in human nature. Huemer's plan is for a Rothbardian capitalist anarchy: fee-for-service, arbitration firms, and voluntariness to eliminate the monopoly of government. This would make it lean and efficient.

It probably would. But would it be practical? To be honest, what he describes might not sound that appealing to the average citizen. Instead of paying taxes to one or two governments, the citizen might have to deal with dozens of companies, some of which would be well run, with nice Muzak when they put you on hold, while others would be something between Comcast and Pepco. And it gets worse: “HOAs,” he writes, “would probably be even more widespread” than now [p.260]. Oh, lovely. Instead of one big tyranny we get a hundred little ones.

The advantages of anarchy, says Huemer, are that it gives people a choice and it rests on cooperation instead of coercion. But I'm not so sure about the debtor's prisons and labor camps for criminals that he suggests. In an anarchy, couldn't companies do anything they want, up to and including killing any customer who complains? The only thing stopping them would be market forces.

Even now, corporations do whatever they can get away with. In an anarchy, the only thing they would fear is other corporations. So to avoid conflict they would divide up the territory, creating monopolies. If people started mysteriously disappearing in one of those territories, who would investigate? No company would risk their personnel by invading some other company and arresting their mercenaries.

The way things are going, we will get anarchy soon enough, whether we want it or not, and we'll find out if Huemer is right. But the utopia he describes sounds pretty dreary, and the average person hates the corporations we have now. So I suspect the capitalist anarchy he describes will be a tough sell.

jun 17, 2014; updated jun 23, 2014

book review score+3

Against the state
An anarcho-capitalist manifesto
Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr.
Lew Rockwell, 2014, 190 pages

Reviewed by T Nelson

One would expect to find, in this self-published book by a highly respected libertarian, a well-reasoned argument in favor of Rothbard's capitalist anarchy. Instead, what we get is a long criticism of the USA. “The main aim of American foreign policy,” he writes, “is to impose the will of our ruling elite on the rest of the world.” Even the Cold War was unjustified, because the Soviet Union would never have invaded the United States. The USA is a fascist state, and the worship of Obama was a despicable display of the civic religion. The Peace Dividend has been eaten by the bureaucratic monster that prevents us from being free.

If I didn't know better, I'd think Lew Rockwell doesn't think we're going in the right direction. He says we're in a corporatist state, and the only solution is to eliminate all government altogether.

Although one can dispute the idea that the Cold War was America's fault, his criticism of economic policy has considerable merit. He is one of the few who recognizes that women entering the workplace were not part of some glorious liberation, but a last-ditch effort to keep the middle class afloat by shrinking the ratio of workers to households, and its effects are now spent. And big government stifles growth.

All true. But also, all irrelevant to his case. The USA is only one specific instantiation of a state. Maybe we are supposed to take America as the pinnacle of a modern state; by proving the USA is flawed, it would follow that all other modern states are also flawed.

Lew Rockwell recognizes that his ideas are a bit out of the mainstream. His goal is to convince you that something radically new is needed. By throwing out seemingly crazy ideas, he wants to make you think outside the box.

That's a desirable goal, but it seems to me that if we're searching for a way to guarantee freedom, the last place we should look is at big corporations. You can tell a lot by observing what life is like for the typical employee. Only someone who has never worked at a big corporation would think they are models of individual liberty. It's because of corporations, not the government, for example, that I have to use a pseudonym on this website.

I've worked in both places. There is only one place where there's less freedom than in government, and that is in a corporation. I sympathize with Lew Rockwell's mistrust of government. But if you give, Microsoft, and Bank of America the right to tax you, declare war, and kill people at will, would they do any better than the U.S. government? Not in my experience.

jun 19, 2014; updated jul 24, 2014