The Reluctant Anarchist
By Joe Sobran
My arrival (very recently) at philosophical
anarchism has disturbed some of my conservative and Christian friends. In
fact, it surprises me, going as it does against my own inclinations.
As a child I acquired a
deep respect for authority and a horror of chaos. In my case the two things
were blended by the uncertainty of my existence after my parents
divorced and I bounced from one home to another for several years, often
living with strangers. A stable authority was something I yearned for.
public-school education imbued me with the sort of patriotism encouraged in all
children in those days. I grew up feeling that if there was one thing I could
trust and rely on, it was my government. I knew it was strong and benign,
even if I didn’t know much else about it. The idea that some people
— Communists, for example — might want to overthrow the
government filled me with horror.
G.K. Chesterton, with his
usual gentle audacity, once criticized Rudyard Kipling for his “lack
of patriotism.” Since Kipling was renowned for glorifying the
British Empire, this might have seemed one of Chesterton’s
“paradoxes”; but it was no such thing, except in the sense
that it denied what most readers thought was obvious and
Chesterton, himself a
“Little Englander” and opponent of empire, explained what
was wrong with Kipling’s view: “He admires England, but he
does not love her; for we admire things with reasons, but love them
without reason. He admires England because she is strong, not because she
is English.” Which implies there would be nothing to love her for if
she were weak.
Of course Chesterton
was right. You love your country as you love your mother — simply
because it is yours, not because of its superiority to others,
particularly superiority of power.
This seems axiomatic to
me now, but it startled me when I first read it. After all, I was an
American, and American patriotism typically expresses itself in
superlatives. America is the freest, the mightiest, the richest, in short
the greatest country in the world, with the greatest form of
government — the most democratic. Maybe the poor Finns or
Peruvians love their countries too, but heaven knows why — they have
so little to be proud of, so few “reasons.” America is also the
most envied country in the world. Don’t all people
secretly wish they were Americans?
That was the kind of
patriotism instilled in me as a boy, and I was quite typical in this respect.
It was the patriotism of supremacy. For one thing, America had never lost
a war — I was even proud that America had created the atomic bomb
(providentially, it seemed, just in time to crush the Japs) — and this
is why the Vietnam war was so bitterly frustrating. Not the dead, but the
defeat! The end of history’s great winning streak!
As I grew up, my patriotism began to
take another form, which it took me a long time to realize was in tension
with the patriotism of power. I became a philosophical conservative, with
a strong libertarian streak. I believed in government, but it had to be
“limited” government — confined to a few legitimate
purposes, such as defense abroad and policing at home. These functions,
and hardly any others, I accepted, under the influence of writers like Ayn
Rand and Henry Hazlitt, whose books I read in my college years.
Though I disliked
Rand’s atheism (at the time, I was irreligious, but not
anti-religious), she had an odd appeal to my residual Catholicism. I had read
enough Aquinas to respond to her Aristotelian mantras. Everything had to
have its own nature and limitations, including the state; the idea of a
state continually growing, knowing no boundaries, forever increasing its
claims on the citizen, offended and frightened me. It could only end in
I was also powerfully
drawn to Bill Buckley, an explicit Catholic, who struck the same
Aristotelian note. During his 1965 race for mayor of New York, he made a
sublime promise to the voter: he offered “the internal composure
that comes of knowing there are rational limits to politics.” This
may have been the most futile campaign promise of all time, but it would
have won my vote!
It was really this
Aristotelian sense of “rational limits,” rather than any
particular doctrine, that made me a conservative. I rejoiced to find it in
certain English writers who were remote from American conservatism
— Chesterton, of course, Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, George
Orwell, C.S. Lewis, Michael Oakeshott.
In fact I much preferred
a literary, contemplative conservatism to the activist sort that was
preoccupied with immediate political issues. During the Reagan years,
which I expected to find exciting, I found myself bored to death by
supply-side economics, enterprise zones, “privatizing” welfare
programs, and similar principle-dodging gimmickry. I failed to see that
“movement” conservatives were less interested in principles
than in Republican victories. To the extent that I did see it, I failed to
grasp what it meant.
Still, the last thing I
expected to become was an anarchist. For many years I didn’t even
know that serious philosophical anarchists existed. I’d never heard
of Lysander Spooner or Murray Rothbard. How could society survive at all
without a state?
Now I began to be
critical of the U.S. Government, though not very. I saw that the welfare
state, chiefly the legacy of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, violated
the principles of limited government and would eventually have to go. But
I agreed with other conservatives that in the meantime the urgent global
threat of Communism had to be stopped. Since I viewed
“defense” as one of the proper tasks of government, I thought
of the Cold War as a necessity, the overhead, so to speak, of freedom. If
the Soviet threat ever ceased (the prospect seemed remote), we could
afford to slash the military budget and get back to the job of dismantling
the welfare state.
Somewhere, at the
rainbow’s end, America would return to her founding principles. The
Federal Government would be shrunk, laws would be few, taxes minimal.
That was what I thought. Hoped, anyway.
I avidly read
conservative and free-market literature during those years with the sense
that I was, as a sort of late convert, catching up with the conservative
movement. I took it for granted that other conservatives had already read
the same books and had taken them to heart. Surely we all wanted the
same things! At bottom, the knowledge that there were rational limits to
politics. Good old Aristotle. At the time, it seemed a short hop from
Aristotle to Barry Goldwater.
As is fairly well known
by now, I went to work as a young man for Buckley at National
Review and later became a syndicated columnist. I found my niche
in conservative journalism as a critic of liberal distortions of the U.S.
Constitution, particularly in the Supreme Court’s rulings on
abortion, pornography, and “freedom of expression.”
Gradually I came to see
that the conservative challenge to liberalism’s jurisprudence of
“loose construction” was far too narrow. Nearly everything
liberals wanted the Federal Government to do was unconstitutional. The
key to it all, I thought, was the Tenth Amendment, which forbids the
Federal Government to exercise any powers not specifically assigned to it
in the Constitution. But the Tenth Amendment had been comatose since the
New Deal, when Roosevelt’s Court virtually excised it.
This meant that nearly all Federal legislation from
the New Deal to the Great Society and beyond had been unconstitutional.
Instead of fighting liberal programs piecemeal, conservatives could
undermine the whole lot of them by reviving the true (and, really, obvious)
meaning of the Constitution. Liberalism depended on a long series of
usurpations of power.
the time of Judge Robert Bork’s bitterly
contested (and defeated) nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court,
conservatives spent a lot of energy arguing that the “original
intent” of the Constitution must be conclusive. But they applied this
principle only to a few ambiguous phrases and passages that bore on
specific hot issues of the day — the death penalty, for instance.
About the general meaning of the Constitution there could, I
thought, be no doubt at all. The ruling principle is that whatever the
Federal Government isn’t authorized to do, it’s forbidden to
That alone would
invalidate the Federal welfare state and, in fact, nearly all liberal
legislation. But I found it hard to persuade most conservatives of this.
Bork himself took the view that the Tenth Amendment was unenforceable.
If he was right, then the whole Constitution was in vain from the
I never thought a
constitutional renaissance would be easy, but I did think it could play an
indispensable role in subverting the legitimacy of liberalism. Movement
conservatives listened politely to my arguments, but without much
enthusiasm. They regarded appeals to the Constitution as rather pedantic
and, as a practical matter, futile — not much help in the political
struggle. Most Americans no longer even remembered what
usurpation meant. Conservatives themselves hardly knew.
Of course they were
right, in an obvious sense. Even conservative courts (if they could be
captured) wouldn’t be bold enough to throw out the entire liberal
legacy at once. But I remained convinced that the conservative movement
had to attack liberalism at its constitutional root.
In a way I had
transferred my patriotism from America as it then was to America as it
had been when it still honored the Constitution. And when had it crossed
the line? At first I thought the great corruption had occurred when
Franklin Roosevelt subverted the Federal judiciary; later I came to see
that the decisive event had been the Civil War, which had effectively
destroyed the right of the states to secede from the Union. But this was
very much a minority view among conservatives, particularly at
National Review, where I was the only one who held it.
I’ve written more
than enough about my career at the magazine, so I’ll confine myself
to saying that it was only toward the end of more than two happy decades
there that I began to realize that we didn’t all want the
same things after all. When it happened, it was like learning, after a long
and placid marriage, that your spouse is in love with someone else, and
has been all along.
Not that I was betrayed.
I was merely blind. I have no one to blame but myself. The Buckley crowd,
and the conservative movement in general, no more tried to deceive me
than I tried to deceive them. We all assumed we were on the same side,
when we weren’t. If there is any fault for this misunderstanding, it
is my own.
In the late 1980s I began
mixing with Rothbardian libertarians — they called themselves by the
unprepossessing label “anarcho-capitalists” — and even
met Rothbard himself. They were a brilliant, combative lot, full of
challenging ideas and surprising arguments. Rothbard himself combined a
profound theoretical intelligence with a deep knowledge of history. His
magnum opus, Man, Economy, and State, had received the
most unqualified praise of the usually reserved Henry Hazlitt — in
I can only say of Murray
what so many others have said: never in my life have I encountered such an
original and vigorous mind. A short, stocky New York Jew with an
explosive cackling laugh, he was always exciting and cheerful company.
Pouring out dozens of big books and hundreds of articles, he also found
time, heaven knows how, to write (on the old electric typewriter he used
to the end) countless long, single-spaced, closely reasoned letters to all
sorts of people.
Murray’s view of
politics was shockingly blunt: the state was nothing but a criminal gang
writ large. Much as I agreed with him in general, and fascinating though I
found his arguments, I resisted this conclusion. I still wanted to believe
in constitutional government.
Murray would have none
of this. He insisted that the Philadelphia convention at which the
Constitution had been drafted was nothing but a “coup
d’etat,” centralizing power and destroying the far more
tolerable arrangements of the Articles of Confederation. This was a direct
denial of everything I’d been taught. I’d never heard anyone
suggest that the Articles had been preferable to the Constitution! But
Murray didn’t care what anyone thought — or what everyone
thought. (He’d been too radical for Ayn Rand.)
Murray and I shared a
love of gangster films, and he once argued to me that the Mafia was
preferable to the state, because it survived by providing services people
actually wanted. I countered that the Mafia behaved like the state,
extorting its own “taxes” in protection rackets directed at
shopkeepers; its market was far from “free.” He admitted I
had a point. I was proud to have won a concession from him.
Murray died a few years
ago without quite having made an anarchist of me. It was left to his
brilliant disciple, Hans-Hermann Hoppe, to finish my conversion. Hans
argued that no constitution could restrain the state. Once its monopoly of
force was granted legitimacy, constitutional limits became mere fictions
it could disregard; nobody could have the legal standing to enforce those
limits. The state itself would decide, by force, what the constitution
“meant,” steadily ruling in its own favor and increasing its
own power. This was true a priori, and American history bore it out.
What if the Federal Government
grossly violated the Constitution? Could states withdraw from the Union?
Lincoln said no. The Union was “indissoluble” unless all the
states agreed to dissolve it. As a practical matter, the Civil War settled
that. The United States, plural, were really a single enormous state, as
witness the new habit of speaking of “it” rather than
So the people are bound
to obey the government even when the rulers betray their oath to uphold
the Constitution. The door to escape is barred. Lincoln in effect claimed
that it is not our rights but the state that is “unalienable.”
And he made it stick by force of arms. No transgression of the
Constitution can impair the Union’s inherited legitimacy. Once
established on specific and limited terms, the U.S. Government is forever,
even if it refuses to abide by those terms.
As Hoppe argues, this is
the flaw in thinking the state can be controlled by a constitution. Once
granted, state power naturally becomes absolute. Obedience is a one-way
street. Notionally, “We the People” create a government and
specify the powers it is allowed to exercise over us; our rulers swear
before God that they will respect the limits we impose on them; but when
they trample down those limits, our duty to obey them remains.
Yet even after the Civil
War, certain scruples survived for a while. Americans still agreed in
principle that the Federal Government could acquire new powers only by
constitutional amendment. Hence the postwar amendments included the
words “Congress shall have power to” enact such and such
But by the time of the New Deal, such scruples were all but defunct. Franklin Roosevelt and his
Supreme Court interpreted the Commerce Clause so broadly as to
authorize virtually any Federal claim, and the Tenth Amendment so
narrowly as to deprive it of any inhibiting force. Today these heresies are
so firmly entrenched that Congress rarely even asks itself whether a
proposed law is authorized or forbidden by the Constitution.
In short, the U.S.
Constitution is a dead letter. It was mortally wounded in 1865. The corpse
can’t be revived. This remained hard for me to admit, and even now
it pains me to say it.
Other things have helped
change my mind. R.J. Rummel of the University of Hawaii calculates that in
the twentieth century alone, states murdered about 162,000,000 million
of their own subjects. This figure doesn’t include the tens of
millions of foreigners they killed in war. How, then, can we speak of
states “protecting” their people? No amount of private crime
could have claimed such a toll. As for warfare, Paul Fussell’s book
Wartime portrays battle with such horrifying vividness
that, although this wasn’t its intention, I came to doubt whether
any war could be justified.
My fellow Christians
have argued that the state’s authority is divinely given. They cite
Christ’s injunction “Render unto Caesar the things that are
Caesar’s” and St. Paul’s words “The powers that
be are ordained of God.” But Christ didn’t say which things
— if any — belong to Caesar; his ambiguous words are far from a
command to give Caesar whatever he claims. And it’s notable that
Christ never told his disciples either to establish a state or to engage in
politics. They were to preach the Gospel and, if rejected, to move on. He
seems never to have imagined the state as something they could or should
enlist on their side.
At first sight, St. Paul
seems to be more positive in affirming the authority of the state. But he
himself, like the other martyrs, died for defying the state, and
we honor him for it; to which we may add that he was on one occasion a
jailbreaker as well. Evidently the passage in Romans has been misread. It
was probably written during the reign of Nero, not the most edifying of
rulers; but then Paul also counseled slaves to obey their masters, and
nobody construes this as an endorsement of slavery. He may have meant
that the state and slavery were here for the foreseeable future, and that
Christians must abide them for the sake of peace. Never does he say that
either is here forever.
St. Augustine took a dim view of the state,
as a punishment for sin. He said that a state without justice is nothing but
a gang of robbers writ large, while leaving doubt that any state could ever
be otherwise. St. Thomas Aquinas took a more benign view, arguing that
the state would be necessary even if man had never fallen from grace; but
he agreed with Augustine that an unjust law is no law at all, a doctrine
that would severely diminish any known state.
The essence of the state
is its legal monopoly of force. But force is subhuman; in words I quote
incessantly, Simone Weil defined it as “that which turns a person
into a thing — either corpse or slave.” It may sometimes be a
necessary evil, in self-defense or defense of the innocent, but nobody can
have by right what the state claims: an exclusive privilege of using it.
possible that states — organized force — will always rule this
world, and that we will have at best a choice among evils. And some
states are worse than others in important ways: anyone in his right mind
would prefer living in the United States to life under a Stalin. But to say a
thing is inevitable, or less onerous than something else, is not to say it is
For most people,
anarchy is a disturbing word, suggesting chaos, violence,
antinomianism — things they hope the state can control or prevent.
The term state, despite its bloody history, doesn’t disturb
them. Yet it’s the state that is truly chaotic, because it means the
rule of the strong and cunning. They imagine that anarchy would naturally
terminate in the rule of thugs. But mere thugs can’t assert a
plausible right to rule. Only the state, with its propaganda
apparatus, can do that. This is what legitimacy means. Anarchists
obviously need a more seductive label.
“But what would
you replace the state with?” The question reveals an inability to
imagine human society without the state. Yet it would seem that an
institution that can take 200,000,000 lives within a century hardly needs
to be “replaced.”
especially Americans, have long been misled about all this by their good
fortune. Since the conversion of Rome, most Western rulers have been
more or less inhibited by Christian morality (though, often enough, not
so’s you’d notice), and even warfare became somewhat
civilized for centuries; and this has bred the assumption that the state
isn’t necessarily an evil at all. But as that morality loses its
cultural grip, as it is rapidly doing, this confusion will dissipate. More and
more we can expect the state to show its nature nakedly.
For me this is anything
but a happy conclusion. I miss the serenity of believing I lived under a
good government, wisely designed and benevolent in its operation. But, as
St. Paul says, there comes a time to put away childish things.
See also, How To Vote For Liberty by Joe Sobran.
Joe Sobran is an author, syndicated columnist, and editor
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