How Does an Anarchist Think?

The Conscience of an Anarchist
by Gary Chartier
Introduction by Jacob Huebert

Gary Chartier’s Conscience of an Anarchist , this week’s ebook of the week in the Laissez Faire Club, is a valuable addition to the literature of liberty. Whether you’re exploring the idea of a stateless society for the first time or are a longtime radical libertarian, here is a book that should open your mind to new ideas.

It will be the most stimulating if you’re a newcomer, of course, because you’ll be introduced to a way of thinking about politics and the world that turns the conventional wisdom on its head. We’re told from a young age that a coercive government is necessary to do so much: protect us from foreign and domestic criminals, stop the rich from exploiting the poor, ensure that people’s basic needs are met, keep our food and medicine safe, and on and on. Chartier challenges the reader to consider whether the exact opposite is true, whether the state has actually made things much worse than they otherwise would be in all of these areas.

Although this is a short book, Chartier takes on many of the toughest questions a reader is likely to have. Don’t we need police? Don’t we need national defense? Wouldn’t big corporations amass power that could be even worse than state power? When introducing someone to libertarian or anarchist ideas, it’s tempting to start with the easy cases, but Chartier plunges right in to the ones that are supposedly the hardest — and often manages to make the anarchist position, which runs contrary to one of our society’s most deeply held beliefs, seem like common sense.

Chartier doesn’t address every objection that a reader might have or detail how everything in a stateless society might work, but that’s not the point. The point, as he says at the beginning, is to ask you to open your mind to the possibility of a peaceful alternative to the coercive status quo. The books that change one’s life often aren’t lengthy academic treatises on economics, history, or political theory; rather, they’re short, radical, personal works like this one that seek to snap you out of your intellectual complacency. Readers who find the book’s ideas interesting will of course want to dig further into libertarian and anarchist literature, and Chartier provides helpful suggestions for additional reading at the end.

For those of us who already agree with most or all of Chartier’s substantive ideas, I’ll add that the book offers something else of value: an example of a different way to present our ideas that may help us reach more people.

In recent years, libertarianism has enjoyed an unprecedented surge in popularity. Several factors brought this about, including a stagnant economy that has eroded people’s faith in government, Ron Paul’s presidential campaigns, and the Internet, which has made a huge quantity of libertarian literature instantly available to everyone. (Incidentally, I use “libertarian” where Chartier would use “anarchist” because I consider consistent libertarianism and Chartier’s variety of anarchism to be the same thing.)

More popularity has lead to more attacks on libertarianism, especially from left-leaning mainstream-media pundits. The attacks often bash libertarians for being “selfish” adherents of an “every-man-for-himself” philosophy. Our opposition to state involvement in healthcare, for example, allegedly means we’re okay with letting people die in the streets. Although libertarians consistently oppose bailouts, subsidies, and every other form of corporate welfare, journalist Sam Tanenhaus can still claim in the New York Times that libertarians champion “private business” while “ignoring the rights of just about everyone else,” and a large portion of his audience will believe it.

I’m sure some of these people understand libertarianism better than they let on and are being disingenuous to score political points. But I’m also sure that many of them are sincere. So it may be worthwhile to think about why someone might hold this negative view of libertarians.

One reason might be because the typical statist leftist “knows,” and believes that every informed person knows, that government is necessary to do certain things — for example, to make sure that that poor people have enough food to eat. Thus, if a libertarian says “we should abolish government,” the statist leftist hears this as “we should stop doing what is necessary to make sure poor people have enough food to eat.” Thus, the leftist concludes that the libertarian is crazy, ignorant, or just doesn’t care about poor people starving. To the statist leftist, it appears that the libertarian is content to let many people die because of his devotion to an abstract principle — or maybe just because he wants the government to get its hands out of his wallet. And that seems wrong.

A libertarian of course sees a mistaken premise in that line of thinking: In fact, government is not necessary to ensure that the poor have enough to eat. Moreover, the libertarian believes that without government there would be much less poverty and people at the lower end of the economic spectrum would enjoy a much higher standard of living.

So if a libertarian wants the statist leftist to embrace libertarianism, at least on this issue, it should be clear what he must do: convince the statist that a genuine free market would serve the poor’s interests better than the state ever could.

It should also be clear what the libertarian should not do: appeal to a principle that the leftist doesn’t already share, such as the libertarian rule against all use of force and fraud. No doubt the leftist, like almost everyone, opposes force in general, but for him the general rule has a built-in exception for government — because, again, he thinks it’s necessary to avoid terrible consequences. So if you try to persuade him to accept the nonaggression principle before you address his concerns about consequences, you are asking him to embrace something he believes will lead to widespread misery and death. This is not likely to succeed.

I’m sure Conscience of an Anarchist will find receptive readers from all over the political spectrum, but it’s especially instructive in showing us how to reach out to the Left along the lines that I’ve mentioned. Chartier puts his concern for the poor and the powerless up front. For him, the benefits that the market gives to these people are not incidental, not something to be brought up only at the rebuttal stage of an argument; he counts them among the main reasons why he’s an anarchist. He also makes clear from the outset that big business is no friend of liberty. And he emphasizes other issues that are likely to resonate with people on the left, such as opposition to war and support for sexual freedom.

Although Chartier focuses on consequences rather than rights, none of this undermines the rights-based case for liberty. (As it happens, Chartier is an accomplished scholar in the field of natural law.) In fact, the opposite is true: by overcoming people’s concerns about consequences and showing how liberty serves other values that are important to them, we may make people more receptive to our ideas about rights than they would have been if we had just preached principles at the outset.

I should mention briefly that many libertarians may not agree with everything in this book. I, for one, am not as sure as Chartier seems to be that businesses would tend to be smaller and that labor unions would thrive in a free society, and I don’t think the corporate form is such a bad thing. But Chartier acknowledges that he could be wrong about some of the details, as could I. What’s more important is what we have in common: we agree that humanity would benefit greatly if the state were abolished, and we’re happy to let peaceful people decide what arrangements are best for them without coercion from the state or anyone else.