Saturday, May 17, 2014

Anarcho-Capitalists Against Ayn Rand

By David Gordon

The New Libertarianism: Anarcho-Capitalism
By J. Michael Oliver, CreateSpace, 2013. 188 pp.

 J. Michael Oliver tells us that this remarkable book began as an academic thesis written in 1972 and submitted the next year for a graduate degree at the University of South Carolina. The book is much more than an academic thesis, though; it is
a distinguished addition to libertarian thought.
Oliver’s principal contribution arises from his reaction to two intellectual movements. Like many in the 1960s and 70s, he was attracted to the Objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand. Together with several others in the Objectivist movement, though, Oliver disagreed with the political conclusions that Rand and her inner circle drew from her philosophy. “Some students of the philosophy concluded that Rand and the ‘orthodox’ Objectivists had failed to develop a political theory that followed from the more basic principles of Objectivism. It was at that time that Rand’s advocacy of limited government began to come under attack from a growing number of deviant ‘objectivists.’ The libertarian-objectivists ... declared that government, limited or otherwise, is without justification, and that the only social system consistent with man’s nature is a non-state, market society, or anarcho-capitalism.”
To claim that Rand misconceived the implications of her own philosophy is a daring thesis, but Oliver makes a good case for it. After a succinct account of Objectivist metaphysics, epistemology, and theory of volition, Oliver turns to ethics. Here one feature stands to the fore. Objectivist ethics, as the name suggests, holds that the requirements for human flourishing are objective matters of fact: “Objectivists deny that there is any justification for the belief that ethics and values are beyond the realm of fact and reason. Man is, after all, a living being with a particular identity and particular requirements for his life. It is not the case that any actions will sustain his life; only those actions which are consonant with man’s well-being will sustain him. Man cannot choose his values at random without reference to himself and still hope to live. This concept applies to an individual man as well as a human society (composed of individuals). Objective values follow from man’s identity.”
If there are objective requirements for your survival, that is going to be a matter of considerable interest to you; but is that the sum and substance of ethics? This is not the place to examine this question, but, at any rate, one of the arguments Rand used to support her egoist ethics does not succeed. Rand stated the argument in this way: “Try to imagine an immortal, indestructible robot, an entity which moves and acts, but cannot be affected by anything, which cannot be damaged, injured, or destroyed. Such an entity would not be able to have any values; it would have nothing to gain or lose; it could not regard anything as for it or against it, as serving or threatening its value, as fulfilling or frustrating its interests. It could have no interests and no goals.”
Why is the indestructible robot unable to have values? The answer, according to Rand, is that because the robot cannot be destroyed or damaged, nothing can matter to it. But why does the robot’s invulnerability imply that nothing matters to it? The answer is that because the purpose of values is to promote one’s own survival, indestructibility removes the point of values. If nothing can kill or injure it, it doesn’t need to do anything to prevent being killed or injured.
But this isn’t an argument at all for ethical egoism: Rand’s conclusion follows only if one already accepts that the purpose of values is to secure one’s own survival. Suppose the robot is altruistic: why would its own invulnerability prevent it from valuing the welfare of others? After all, even Rand doesn’t claim that altruism is impossible: she just thinks it is mistaken.
But this is by the way. Much more important for our purposes are the political conclusions Oliver draws from Objectivist ethics. He begins with something Rand herself accepted. “Man is a being of choice. Those essential actions, both physical and cognitive, which he must undertake to maintain his being are subject to his volition. Since his life depends upon his capacity to choose, it follows that his life requires the freedom to choose. ... Given that life is the standard of value, it is right that man be free to exercise his choice. The principle of rights as understood by the new libertarians is merely a statement of the fact that if man is to maintain life on the level which his nature permits, then men (in human society) must refrain from violating one another’s freedom.”
To protect these rights, Rand thought it necessary to have a limited government, and here is where Oliver diverges from his philosophical mentor. A regime of rights, along the lines Rand sets out, does not at all require an agency, however limited, holding a monopoly on the permissible use of force. Such an agency of necessity violates the very rights Rand advocated. “Government, being a coercive monopoly, must prohibit its citizens through the threat of force, from engaging the services of any alternative institution ...”
Government then necessarily violates rights; and furthermore, a limited government cannot for long remain limited. “The new libertarian concludes that the internal checks and balances on governmental power and the alleged mechanisms for the defense of minorities are ... flimsy constructs. ... Genuine competition, whether from another coercive agency of from a non-coercive business, can serve as the only real “limit” on State power, and it does so precisely by depriving government of its status as a ‘government.’ Logically, then, if government exists, it is unlimited and self-determining.”
How, then, can rights be protected? Oliver finds the answer in anarcho-capitalism, and he makes extensive and effective use of the work of Murray Rothbard in his account of this system: “While anarcho-capitalists are in agreement that there can and should be market alternatives to government police, courts, prisons and armed forces, they are not in agreement as to the specifics of such private agencies and their methods ... [but] the assumption herein is that the market will always tend toward rationality and satisfaction of the objective requirements for human life. ... Protection from aggression, conflict arbitration, and rectification of wrongdoing are genuine needs of man in society. Satisfaction of these demands must be in keeping with man’s nature (i.e., the principle of rights) if the corrective measures are not to be unjust and economically destructive in themselves.”
But must not Oliver overcome an objection? The standard response of Objectivists to anarchism is that there cannot be a market in law and defense. To the contrary, the free market presupposes the existence of a fixed legal order, not subject to competition; and this only a government can provide.[1]
Oliver not only answers this difficulty but turns it against the objectivist defenders of the state. It is entirely true, Oliver says, that the free market presupposes objective law; but the requirements of objective law are fixed by human nature. Far from requiring a state, objective law correctly understood precludes its existence. “There is no need for a legislative process. Law is inherent in the nature of things — including man’s nature. Thus, discovery of law rather than the fabrication of law is called for. ... Because capitalism/voluntarism is based upon a recognition of the necessity of freedom of thought and action, it makes no sense to create a monopolistic agency for the discovery of truth and law.” In an anarcho-capitalist society, the basic elements of law would not be “up for grabs,” contrary to the claims of the Randian critics of anarchism.[2]
It is state-created law, not anarcho-capitalism, that conflicts with legal objectivity. “One deleterious effect of governmental law is the suppression or obfuscation of concern for objective law. After generations of living under an omnipresent legal system, men could easily come to view government as the source of law, thus losing sight of natural, objective law.”
There is much else of great interest in The New Libertarianism, including a detailed account of how anarchist law enforcement might operate; a trenchant criticism of the influential notion of “spontaneous field control” advanced by the Yale political scientists Robert Dahl, and Charles Lindblom; and suggestions about how a free market might use innovative technology to solve transportation problems. The New Libertarianism is a major contribution to the defense of anarcho-capitalism.

David Gordon is a Senior Fellow at the Mises Institute. He is author of Resurrecting Marx and An Introduction to Economic Reasoning and editor of numerous books including The Essential Rothbard.

The above originally appeared at and his reprinted with permission.


  1. The Objectivists are not the enemies of anarcho-capitalists. Maybe when we have a minarchist state that discussion is worth having. Would you please get along until then? Libertarianism is going nowhere with all this infighting and bickering. Remember, the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

    1. Islamic leaders are the enemies of Rome's witchdoctors, but Islamic leaders are not my friends.

  2. Another essay that would make Ludwig von Mises hurl.

    There is no such thing as "anarcho-capitalism." In fact, there is no such thing as "anarchism."

    The refutation of it is simple. In the thought-experiment of "no state":

    1) the instant one human ('Smith') places another under physical coercion, or threat thereof, Smith becomes "government." He is governing the other against his will. Further, not only is Smith now de facto a government, Smith is a corrupt government, since he initiates force against another. Therefore, there is no such thing as "anarchism" since it is a void juvenile fantasy to posit that humans in this thought experiment will refrain from initiating force, and as soon as a government (as I just described it) forms, "anarchism" is dead.

    2) so, what if "anarchism" does not mean no government, it means "no State." To construct the idea that Smith is not really government because he does not have "a monopoly on the use of force" and therefore he is merely a criminal, points up the gigantic black hole of "anarchism": monopoly can only be SUSTAINED by the entity WITH a monopoly on the use of force, namely "The State." As soon as you hear an anarchist saying "There must be no entity with the monopoly on force, no State," observe that it is always postulated with verbs in the passive voice, all variants of the verb "to be." This is the void fantasy for NoState to magically spring into existence. Once confronted on this fantasy and the demand to place it in the "active voice" this is inevitably the chorus: "competing agencies of retaliation." Well, the absurd conclusion of "anarchism" if it were ever attempted is: competition between ad hoc entities to become de facto "The State."

    Ayn Rand rightly and devastatingly responded to this constructed non-possibility "anarchism": "You mean, gang warfare?"

    1. Pop quiz for all "juvenile" conservatives such as John Donohue:

      Is Smith's "corrupt government"

      (a) less corrupt,
      (b) about as corrupt, or
      (c) more corrupt

      once Smith, the aggressor, endows his corruption with a smokescreen, e.g. constitutions and statutes, which deem his protomonopoly legitimate? and once his "corrupt government" has convinced large numbers of people that they are obligated to pay the expenses of the "corrupt government"?

      "The absurd conclusion" of "juvenile" fantasizers such as John Donohue is that Smith's government will be (a) less corrupt or (b) about as corrupt as it would be without the smokescreen. Of course, conservatives like John understand only too well that they would look like fools if they made this clear, so they quickly resort to mud throwing and scare tactics about "gang warfare" which,...wait for it...we have already in spades thanks to the widespread delusion that gangs called states are entitled to tribute from their subjects. From time to time the conservatives also prate and prattle about grammar, as if arguments against their despotism were so lacking in merit that they can be written off as mere word games.

      Reasonable people, however, can be convinced that the correct answer to the quiz is (c), more corrupt. They can also be convinced that the leaders of the most corrupt "ad hoc entities" will be very little interested in fostering widespread skepticism about conservatism.

    2. Excellent points, John.

      Exhibit A:

      From Hans Herman Hoppe's book on Democracy, The God that Failed, page 218

      "There can be no tolerance toward democrats and communists in a libertarian social order. They will have to be physically separated and expelled from society. Likewise, in a covenant founded for the purpose of protecting family and kin, there can be no tolerance toward those habitually promoting lifestyles incompatible with this goal. They – the advocates of alternative, non-family and kin-centered lifestyles such as, for instance, individual hedonism, parasitism, nature-environment worship, homosexuality, or communism – will have to be physically removed from society, too, if one is to maintain a libertarian order.”

      He has justified the state with this paragraph.

    3. What does the quotation from Hans Hoppe have to do with the state?

    4. Replying to "Anonymous #1" (Why do you people not give your name and identity?)

      A proper state, as clearly elucidated by Ayn Rand and Ludwig von Mises commits no initiation of force against citizens. That reality voids your entire response.

      Second, my "grammar" observation is not trivial, sorry you did not get it: no so-called "anarchist" can describe the foundation of his desired political climate with active verbs. This is because a political state must be created. It must proactively be initiated and sustained. Actively. The fantasy of "noState", which can never come to pass as I have explained, can only be described passively, such as "There will be no state" or "There will be no agency with monopoly of force." etc., which is a self-devouring contradiction as I described. Anarchism is not a politics; it is a black hole.

      To others: humans have free will. While it is wise to support each other in the free exercise thereof for the better, it is unwise to magically hope or pray that some will not infringe on others. If there must be an agency which will rectify infringements, let there be only one, free people will keep an eye on it, keep it small and correct. If that is less than a Platonic Ideal, if that "might" lead to gradual accumulation of power (as it has over 200 year timespan in the U.S.), this is no reason to not have The State, the proper State as elucidated by Ayn Rand and Ludwig von Mises.

  3. Although the topic is very interesting and thought provoking, I think that the problems that advocates of both anarcho-capitalism and limited government point out in each others preferred social systems is correct.

    For instance, I think that the anarcho-capitalists are correct when they point out that once a limited government is established, it will not remain limited for long. It will have a tendency to usurp more and more power to itself at the expense of the governed.

    However, I also think that the proponents of limited government are correct when they say that in a society without a government, there will be a tendency for sociopathic gangsters to form themselves into gangs and claim to have the right to use force. After a while, these gangs will become known as the government.

    Of course, both anarcho-capitalists and proponents of limited government are also correct in their joint criticisms of interventionism, socialism and fascism. However, neither anarcho-capitalism nor limited government provide a perfect solution. They are both better than the alternatives, but they are still flawed.

    Ultimately, both anarcho-capitalism and limited government depend on an enlightened public. Enlightenment does not need to be completely universal. However, it does need to be prevalent enough in society to keep the sociopaths at bay.

    It should be mentioned that the proponents of interventionism, socialism and fascism criticize both anarcho-capitalism and limited government by claiming that the public will never be enlightened enough for protect society from sociopaths. However, their proposed solutions amount to nothing less than complete surrender. The social systems that they recommend each place virtually unlimited power into the hands of sociopaths gangsters.

    This is why I considers organizations such as the Ludwig von Mises Institute and the Ron Paul Institute to the very bedrocks of civilization. They are both dedicated to enlightening the public. This is also why I so much admire EPJ and the EPJ Alert. They not only help to enlighten the public at large, but also attempt to help the small portion of society that is open to new ideas persevere against the economic calamities that the sociopaths hurl at us on a daily basis.

  4. An indestructible robot could act altruistically if it desired to do so, and you could call that moral or ethical action, but what is your standard? As a contingent being you naturally favor actions that increase your chances of survival. Yet the robot could act murderously and dishonestly and call it ethical. Other than prejudice, why would you call it unethical? If it is acting on other contingent beings, of course they would call its acts good if altruistic. If it were acting on other indestructible robots it would be irrelevant to them whether the acts were altruistic or dishonest. The keystone of virtue seems to be existence contingent on human choice and action.

    For your entertainment