Can anarchism be defended? | The Partially Examined Life Philosophy Podcast | A Philosophy Podcast and Blog

The movement away from Anarchy is not to be confused with anarchism.

Robert Nozick tries to knock out anarchism as a possible political theory in his argument for the Minimal State. But does he really knock it out? Or can anarchism as a political theory be defended? And what is at stake?

In Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Robert Nozick imagines a world in which, as if by an invisible hand, society moves away from Anarchy toward the Minimal State—an organization with a monopoly on violence and protection, including protection of private property and the enforcement of contracts. Nozick believes the Minimal State is the only political organization that is morally justifiable. The movement away from Anarchy, however, is not to be confused with anarchism. Anarchy is the imagined condition when human beings lived without anyone claiming a monopoly on violence and coercion. Anarchism is the commitment to the principle of autonomy. Nozick conflates the two concepts, and so with a little parsing I think his claims can be rebutted and anarchism can be defended as a principled position, even if ultimately it’s best considered one valuable position among others.

Nozick lays out five possible scenarios in which someone could try to defend political organization and still maintain a commitment to the individual’s natural rights.

Scenario 1: Anarchy. Human beings are self-governing to the extent that they do not harm others. The old saying runs, “Your freedom ends where my nose begins”—have all the freedom you want but just don’t go around using that freedom to hurt me or anybody else. Of course, the outbreak of violence or coercion is always possible under this scenario even if it’s never morally justified.

Scenario 2: Competing Protective Agencies. Human beings are not entirely self-governing because in this scenario there are little protective agencies that people pay cash or kind to in order to keep from being harmed by others—but with no pay comes no protection, in which case the people who are entirely self-governing are open to harm.

Scenario 3: Dominant Protective Agency. Human beings are not self-governing if they pay tribute to this big protective agency but they can rest assured that if someone tries to harm or defraud them, they are going to be covered. Anybody not paying tribute to the big agency gets no protection but are self-governing.

Scenario 4: Ultraminimal State. A big protective agency controls an area and nobody within that territory is allowed to exercise force or coercion—but it only protects those who pay. Anybody who harms a non-paying member may suffer but the non-paying member is not entitled to compensation for violence, fraud, or other harm.

Scenario 5: Minimal State. A big protective agency controls an area and nobody within that territory is allowed to exercise force or coercion—to people who pay the agency and people who don’t pay the agency. Nobody is allowed to harm anybody and therefore anyone who is harmed or defrauded is entitled to compensation.

Nozick reasons that Anarchy is insufficient because I am always at risk of being harmed, and I have only me and my friends and family’s recourse for retaliation to help solve problems. Nozick thinks, too, we can quickly dismiss Competing Protective Agencies, the Dominant Protective Agency, and the Ultraminimal State because these scenarios do not respect the natural rights of people who are outside the coverage of these protective agencies. The only legitimate political organization, therefore, is the Minimal State, which will protect people in a territory, no matter what, from violence, coercion, and fraud, and will enforce the rights, especially the property rights, of everyone. Criticizing the Ultraminimal State, Nozick writes:

A proponent of the ultraminimal state may seem to occupy an inconsistent position… Greatly concerned to protect rights against violation, he makes this the sole legitimate function of the state; and he protests that all other functions are illegitimate because they themselves involve the violation of rights. Since he accords paramount place to the protection and nonviolation of rights, how can he support the ultraminimal state, which would seem to leave some persons’ rights unprotected or illprotected? How can he support this i__n the name of the nonviolation of rights? [Nozick’s emphasis]

What is deeply troubling to Nozick is that the Ultraminimal State (and its intermediaries, the Competing Protective Agencies and the Dominant Protective Agency) violates natural rights because it excludes non-paying members to the protective agency from being properly compensated for wrongdoing. His argument is an argument from unfairness: it would be unfair to make those who can’t pay for protection suffer life’s vicissitudes. But the argument is also an argument from rights: above all, we ought to preserve the natural rights of human beings to the extent that they’re not harmed or defrauded—to the extent that they can maintain their freedom.

Yet what Nozick gives with one hand he takes with the other.

Nozick acknowledges that there might be some really existing material conditions where the lack of money limits the possibility of people being free from harm or coercion because they cannot pay for the services that will allow them to be free from such harm. But what if there were a world in which some of these scenarios were mixed? What of the following?

Scenario 6: Minimal State with Competing Protective Agencies. A big protective agency controls an area and nobody within that territory is allowed to exercise force or coercion—to people who pay the agency and people who don’t pay the agency. Nobody is allowed to harm anybody and therefore anyone who is harmed or defrauded is entitled to compensation. But there exist some smaller protective agencies to whom people pay cash or kind in order to suffer fewer opportunities of harm from others—but with no pay comes no protection, in which case the people who are outside the smaller agencies are more open to harm.

Nozick seems to think that among really existing states of affairs, Competing Protective Agencies naturally turn into a Dominant Protective Agency and later into the Ultraminimal State. But it seems to me that mixed forms could exist, as with Scenario 6, where the State provides blanket protection but where smaller organizations exist alongside the State that could increase the probability that one is not exposed to bodily or mental harm and that sometimes do a better job, all told, at protecting people’s claims.

In fact, I think that to a less idealized degree, certain conditions within the United States approximate to Scenario 6. To the extent that some people can afford higher priced attorneys with regard to their legal claims, better health care, better universities, better neighborhoods, more comfortable exercise facilities, and healthier food, they enjoy more freedom from harm. This is because their quality of life is better and they have greater capacities to exercise their rights. The freedom to exercise your rights is no use to you if you never have the chance to use it, or if you’re dead, and real freedom is always more important than nominal freedom. Even constitutional guarantees to freedom and the pursuit of happiness are meaningless words on parchment without the opportunity for use, rendering a constitution little more than a paper tiger.

In Scenario 6, everyone is free from harm but some people are freer from harm than others. Such a world seems morally unjustifiable. In which case, I’d propose the following scenario for rectification:

Scenario 7: Welfare State. A big protective agency controls an area and nobody within that territory is allowed to exercise force or coercion—to people who pay the agency and to people who don’t pay the agency. Nobody is allowed to harm anybody and therefore anyone who is harmed or defrauded is entitled to compensation. To the extent that there exist any Competing Agencies, the lesser off are compensated for the disproportionate amount of harm they incur when some people have greater access to the protections of private agencies.

Scenario 7 would rectify occasions when Scenario 6 more closely approximates the world we live in, and it uses much the same justification for its moral legitimacy as Nozick uses for his argument for the Minimal State as opposed to its less fair alternatives. Yet the whole reason that Nozick got off on this track in the first place is because he thought that Anarchy, where everyone had maximal exercise of his natural rights, would naturally devolve toward a state of war where everyone would be competing every man for himself, and so he needed to find some legitimate institution that could bring order out of all this chaos. But does Nozick’s argument against Anarchy constitute an argument against anarchism? Nozick seems to have thought so but I believe otherwise.

Nozick writes as though his arguments for the Minimal State constitute an argument against anarchism. In the beginning of the work, he writes:

I treat seriously the anarchist claim that in the course of maintaing its monopoly on the use of force and protecting everyone within a territory, the state must violate individuals’ rights and hence is intrinsically immoral. Against this claim, I argue that a state would arise from anarchy (as represented by Locke’s state of nature) even though no one intended this or tried to bring it about, by a process which need not violate anyone’s rights.

Nozick’s claim “that a state would arise from anarchy…even though no one intended this or tried to bring it about” is a non sequitir in view of the anarchist’s objection because the anarchist views the State as morally illegitimate, even if not factually indispensable, by virtue of analyticity. The State violates a person’s autonomy: it seeks to govern people instead of let people govern themselves.

The anarchist, committed to the principle of autonomy, believes people ought to govern themselves. One of Nozick’s contemporaries and a vocal philosophical expositor of the anarchist position Robert Paul Wolff argues that anarchism is a commitment to the principle of autonomy, and that “[t]he autonomous man, insofar as he is autonomous, is not subject to the will of another. He may do what another tells him, but not because he has been told to do it. He is therefore, in the political sense of the word, free.” “The defining mark of the state is authority, the right to rule. The primary obligation of man is autonomy, the refusal to be ruled” (In Defense of Anarchism). The stage is already set for conflict:

The anarchist may grant that if we reached a world where we had only the Minimal State to contend with, where private tyrannies were excluded, it would be better than the alternatives, better than a subscriber State or rule by competing agencies. The anarchist could even say it would be better than Anarchy if Anarchy naturally entails that people do harm to one another and others go out on vengeance killings, for example, to rectify wrongs. But this is all beside the point. The anarchist has no truck in these affairs because these are imagined scenarios whereas anarchism is a principled position in view of real scenarios. The anarchist considers what the really existing states of affairs are and tries her best to maximize her autonomy within those states of affairs. Wolff writes:

Now, of course, an anarchist may grant the necessity of complying with the law under certain circumstances or for the time being. He may even doubt that there is any real prospect of eliminating the state as a human institution. But he will never view the commands of the state as legitimate, as having a binding moral force. In a sense, we might characterize the anarchist as a man without a country, for despite the ties which bind him to the land of his childhood, he stands in precisely the same moral relationship to “his” government as he does to the government of any other country in which he might happen to be staying for a time…

The anarchist is like “a man without a country” because he lives according to the principle of autonomy, the principle where he avers that he must obey his own law, and only obeys the laws of the land out of expediency or because they’re in accord with a law he’d give himself. Autonomy and authority are diametrically opposed, and the anarchist in principle believes it always best to choose to be autonomous to the extent that it’s possible.

… If autonomy and authority are genuinely incompatible, only two courses are open to us. Either we must embrace philosophical anarchism and treat all governments as non-legitimate bodies whose commands must be judged and evaluated in each instance before they are obeyed; or else, we must give up as quixotic the pursuit of autonomy in the political realm and submit ourselves (by an implicit promise) to whatever form of government appears more just and beneficent at the moment… It is out of the question to give up the commitment to moral autonomy… When I place myself in the hands of another, and permit him to determine the principles by which I shall guide my behavior, I repudiate the freedom and reason which give me dignity. I am then guilty of what Kant might have called the sin of willful heteronomy.

The anarchist seems to share some overlap with the libertarian. They are both ultimately committed to freedom and autonomy. But libertarians believe the way to get there is to minimize government and cut to the chase—they want to mate the king but without all the foreplay. Anarchists, however, believe there may be multiple avenues that will allow greater and greater freedom and autonomy. This is why it’s so hard to get a straight answer out of them when you ask, regarding making a more perfect world, “So what do you think the solution is?” Freedom can come in baby steps as well as leaps and bounds, and we’re invited to be suspicious of proposed avenues to get to a greater freedom that would seem to undermine the very thing we’re all after.

I am not an anarchist. I think there are other valuable principles worth fighting for than autonomy—but autonomy is a principle well worth preserving. Therefore, to the extent that anarchists fight for autonomy, they’re fellow travelers. What I do hope is taken seriously, however, not only by the anarchists but people no matter what their political affiliations are, is that there are always more pressing and proximal goals to attend than some final vision of society. There are any number of issues worth tackling as they’re really affecting us, including crime, health care, and poverty, and if we believe in principles like tending to the less fortunate, reducing suffering, and extending our fellow feeling to other human beings, then it ought to be reflected in behavior somehow.