In a 1901 letter to novelist John Galsworthy, Polish author Joseph Conrad described “skepticism” as “the tonic of minds, the tonic of life, the agent of truth – the way of art and salvation.” Men hardly write letters anymore. Post and penmanship have been replaced with email and computer keys. The art of intellectual debate, for better or worse, is waged over blogs, expressing the kind of skepticism that Burke, Luther, and Jefferson put on parchment long ago.
In that spirit, I’ll address a recent criticism I received in open-letter form. The conservative blogger Bulbasaur has treated me with a response to my July piece “Is It a Contradiction?” My initial reaction: well bully for me.
After months of silence, Bulbasaur has penned a comeback that, frankly, fails to come anywhere in the vicinity of a well-reasoned argument. The entire article is an exercise of planting a field of strawmen and then taking a flamethrower to the whole thing. It’s a shame, really. I expected better. But one must work with the tools he has if anything is to be done.
The topic at hand: whether anarcho-capitalism is a contradiction. As any good libertarian would, I believe anarcho-capitalism is perfectly consistent and highly moral. Bulbasaur thinks differently, and does his best to prove that the Rothbardian worldview is nothing but “solipsism and narcissism disguised as a coherent and meaningful worldview.” His argument isn’t new. Many opponents of libertarianism (which, by the way, in its purest form is synonymous with anarcho-capitalism) like to cite the value and utility of social institutions to prove that individualism is flawed. Like a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat, Bulbasaur latches on to the rugged individualist trope and runs with it to the finish line and beyond.
With few exceptions, no anarcho-capitalist that I know of scoffs at social institutions and their constructed mores. Certainly, they will see an organization like the Sierra Club mistaken in ideology and practice. But libertarians readily recognize the utility played by groups such as churches, bridge clubs, or hobby associations. Even the most dogmatic Rothbard-follower will bide his time arguing in an online forum; not whittling away his time alone reading polemics.
In practice, anarcho-capitalists are happy to engage in group activity, and adhere to norms, as long as it’s voluntary. And most times, the same person who rages vehemently against the state will pay his taxes and use government roads to get where he needs to go. It’s just easier abiding by the state’s dictates than spending large amounts of time in jail. Sure, libertarians have socially-awkward outsiders that don’t get along with average people. But that can be true of any philosophy.
Where Bulbasaur really tries to pin down anarcho-capitalism is in epistemology. He attempts to prove that libertarians, by their very ideology, can’t comprehend anything outside of their own, singular worldview. Because libertarianism is based on individualism, all that should matter is what each individual thinks, he avers. From this belief, the libertarian may as well be existentialist, without any of the naturalistic insights of Thoreau. Bulbasaur writes that the philosophy “does not reconcile the individual with ideas bigger than his or herself.”
I can’t speak for everyone who refers to themselves as an anarcho-capitalist, but I say that most adherents see the philosophy as something that is bigger than the individual. Natural law-type libertarians see the non-aggression principle as something real to be adhered to. It’s not an infantile plea to be left alone. Rather, it’s the truth of how humans should act and allocate resources based on the reality of things. It’s illogical for someone to appeal to nature if he only thinks that truth stems from subjective experience.
Speaking of logic, there is also the rational underpinnings of natural law and human behavior that necessitate adherence to the non-aggression principle. Kantian linguistics can prove the validity of self-ownership, but I’ll keep it simple. You shouldn’t hurt people or take their stuff. Why? Because humanity’s unique facilities, including free will and reason, don’t correspond to some ruling over others, unless the leader is freely chosen. We all aren’t created equal, but we are equal under the natural law, or who John Adams called the “Patron of Order.”
Bulbasaur’s says libertarianism is for the self-obsessed. In the natural law framework, that is all nonsense. Individuals act in society to pursue their ends. Those goals can be individualistic or collective. Regardless, only individual persons act – not groups. Anarcho-capitalism says nothing about these ends other than to the extent if they violate the rights of others. If my friend Bulbasaur can point to a nebulous object like “society” or “country” acting by itself, I’d like to see it.
It should be pointed that logic isn’t everything. I completely agree with Bulbasaur’s point that you don’t “have to read like a sterilized tome on Austrian economics to signal intellect.” There are plenty of other forms of understanding out there that don’t rely on cold deductive calculation. As Pascal said, there are plenty of instances when “the heart has reasons that the mind knows not.” That’s not always a bad thing.
To make the point clear, my libertarianism doesn’t consume my life such as it does for other anarcho-capitalists. I recognize that there is much more to life outside of the humdrum of politics. There is no overarching humanism wedded to the libertarian philosophy. It is simply a manner in which to treat others and the things they own. There is indeed something fundamentally true about Victor Hugo’s saying of the three highest ideas of man being “humanity, family, country.” The idea of non-aggression is certainly part of each of these ideas. But it in no way surmounts them.
On a personal note, I firmly believe as Willy Loman once said, “You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away – a man is not a piece of fruit.” Doesn’t that go against the philosophy of methodological individualism and property rights? Shouldn’t I be a money-grubbing capitalist that tosses Tiny Tim and his crutch out on the street after he can’t work my textile mill staffed with children? Clearly not. The libertarian can have a broader scope of the world outside of what Hans-Hermann Hoppe puts in a book. That’s not a difficult point to understand.
To conclude, I don’t, contrary to Bulbasaur’s accusation, necessarily take “criticism very hard.” The question is: by whom? Criticism by Ross Douthat is miles apart from that of an anonymous internet commenter. Bulbasaur might be a pseudonym (and a silly one at that) but I see a thoughtful person behind the mask, hence I offered a response not once, but twice. I hope to receive the same kind of courtesy on what I hope will be another rejoinder.