Published in the June 1999 issue of Liberty

Anarchy, State, and Morality

by Barry Loberfeld

I don't want to argue the point. Okay, so libertarianism's Mises-Hayek flank is waxing as its Rand-Rothbard flank is waning. Fine. I'm not even going to ask about the difference between a "general moral principle" and a "moral imperative." What interests me is what this development of the consequentialist vs. natural law conflict means for another dispute that has divided our movement — minarchism vs. anarchism.

The former was responsible for the latter. Ayn Rand first stated the natural law position in terms that no one could mistake: "So long as men desire to live together, no man may initiate—do you hear me? no man may start—the use of physical force against others" — which, we were told, left us no ethical alternative to limited government.

Now this didn't seem to cause too many people too many problems, at least not until some skinny kid named Roy Childs came along with an "Open Letter to Ayn Rand." With the boldness of youth, he challenged her to resolve the "contradiction in Objectivism": How could a (so-called) limited government maintain its existence, i.e., its "monopoly on the use of retaliatory force," without initiating force against others, viz., competing private agencies of retaliatory force (e.g., free-market police corporations)?

Rand responded not by answering but by excommunicating. Childs's subscription to The Objectivist was canceled, his name removed from the mailing list, and his money ("the unused portion") refunded. This evasion was the "official Objectivist" line right up to Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (1991), in which Rand's "intellectual heir" Leonard Peikoff, while purportedly confronting the question of "anarcho-capitalism," failed even to recognize (let alone rebut) Childs's point (pp. 371-3). So for many Rand-flank libertarians, the choice was clear: Join Childs in embracing anarchism or share a hole with an ostrich.

Unless, that is, a minarchist government is not initiating force when it stops a man from essentially taking the law into his own hands on the pretext that he himself constitutes a "free-market defense agency." "Private force," observes Harry Binswanger (an Objectivist who did confront Childs' point), "is force not authorized by the government, not validated by its procedural safeguards, and not subjected to its supervision. The government has to regard such private force as a threat -- i.e., as a potential violation of individual rights. In barring such private force, the government is retaliating against that threat."

But let's look past Childs' line of reasoning to check its very premise: Can one ever coerce? Well, look at it this way: Can one ever lie? Yes, according to Peikoff himself: "The principle of honesty, in the Objectivist view, is not a divine commandment or a categorical imperative. It does not state that lying is wrong in itself and thus under all circumstances. . . . Lying is absolutely wrong — under certain conditions" (p. 275). But under other conditions, it is absolutely right. And the truth is that we all recognize this and are all aware of these conditions, from the trivial ("Honey, ya look great!") to the vital ("Nein, Kommandant, keine Juden sind hier").

Now would one really care to claim that this approach undercuts the principle of honesty per se? Could it legitimately be mocked as saying, "Never lie! Unless, of course, you really need to lie . . ."? Are we to concede that if you can lie to the Gestapo, you can lie to anyone? To answer affirmatively would be no less absurd than assenting to the notion that one must let go of the flagpole he has grasped to break his fall if the owner comes out and demands that one do so (or whatever the scenario was). The point is, what holds for the principle of honesty holds for the principle of liberty. To my mind, the real "contradiction in Objectivism" was Rand's welding of an intrinsicist valuation of noncoercion (though she did not recognize it as such) onto a contextual theory of value. Rand reasoned that because principles must be applied contextually, in some cases it may be moral to lie. But, she insisted, under no circumstances whatsoever can one "initiate force."

And the upshot of all this? For one thing, it transforms Childs' argument into (and thus buries it as) a reductio ad absurdum of Rand's ideas about the noninitiation of force.* For another, it brings a measure of sense to the distinction between a "general [i.e., contextual] moral principle" and a "moral [i.e., categorical] imperative." It also enables us to transcend the tired contraposition of John Stuart Mill (who championed the "one very simple principle ... [t]hat the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised ... is to prevent harm to others") and James Fitzjames Stephen (who raised contextual questions of "time, place, and circumstance").† But most of all, it means that we don't have to throw the baby of principle (natural law) out with the bath water of intrinsicism — and then adopt pragmatism. It is nature that generates (or "legislates," if you will) the contexts within which human action occurs — including both general conditions and "special situations"; it is the convention of intrinsicism that arbitrarily denies that distinction.

And pragmatism, as Peter Viereck used to say, just isn't pragmatic. How can we "go with what works" when we don't know what we're supposed to be working for? Am I the only one who remembers Rand's example of the college class who preferred a society in which all are equally salaried over a heterogeneous society whose "poorest" member earns more than a member of the other society (The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution, p. 171)? How would a consequentialist, following Mises, respond? Could he say anything more than "Stick with socialism, if that's your goal"?

It is wiser for us to define a context for the morality of noncoercion than to jettison morality altogether. I'm not willing to tie the market for liberty exclusively to the market for bigger bathtubs: Those who forget the history of laissez-faire advocacy are condemned to repeat it. Ah, but what if a contextually-applied noncoercion principle ruled out not only anarchism but minarchism as well? Then good: I don't believe in putting the cart of politics before the horse of ethics.

All right, so I did argue the point.

* Childs himself eventually came to acknowledge the absurdity of anarchism. In an unfinished essay in the posthumously published Liberty Against Power (1994), he conceded that he had "never written anything about how free market anarchism would work." It was apparently the forever-fluid nature of this ideal that ultimately crystallized his "conviction that anarchism functions in the libertarian movement precisely as does Marxism in the international socialist movement: as an incoherent and therefore unreachable goal that inevitably corrupts any attempted strategy to achieve it" (p. 181).

† Definition should have also been a focus for Stephen: His "compulsion" does not appear to distinguish between initiated and retaliatory force.