By David S. Petolicchio
Anarchy has grown in popularity, particularly in recent generations, and seems to have become a catch-all term for frustrated citizens who desire to cast off the chains of oppressive government regimes. Unfortunately, some of these righteously outraged citizens, have grown so bitter to the notion of government that they have determined to reject its establishment entirely. Before delving into why the removal of all government is such a reckless endeavor it is imperative that Anarchy, as a term, is appropriately defined. So what exactly IS anarchy? According to Merriam-Webster, anarchy has multiple definitions that all essentially mean the same thing. The most two most concise of the many definitions would be, “absence of government” and “a Utopian society of individuals who enjoy complete freedom without government”. But Before moving forward, first consider the term “Anarch(ism)” as opposed to “anarch(y)”, Anarchism being the political philosophy of anarchy. Merriam-Webster defines Anarchism as, “a political theory holding all forms of governmental authority to be unnecessary and undesirable and advocating a society based on voluntary cooperation and free association of individuals and groups” Here, it can be determined that anarchism proposes a system based off of the abolition of law and government, essentially claiming that, left to their own devices, individuals will be benevolent and virtuous with regards to their interactions with one another.
The theory of anarchism has been in prominent European philosophical circles for more than two hundred years, gaining prominence and popularity with the works of William Godwin. William Godwin was a British philosopher who was one of the first notable philosophers to espouse and describe anarchism in any formulated sense. In 1793 Godwin wrote his most fundamental work on the matter, An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, and Its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness, which argued that humanity was capable of perfection and that government, as an entity, was inherently inclined to tyrannical behavior and lead to the corruption of human nature(1). In his book, Godwin writes, “While we inquire whether government is capable of Frequency of war: improvement, we shall do well to consider its present effects. It is an old observation, that the history of mankind is little else than the history of crimes. War has hitherto been considered as the inseparable ally of political institution.” Thus, summarizing his bleak view of government systems, but failing to grasp that inanimate entities such as government are not inherently moral or immoral, but rather the humans at the helm are the true cause of tyranny.
Godwin was not the last to promote anarchism as a political theory, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was also involved in its promotion in the nineteenth century. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, in 1840, famously stated first, “I am an anarchist” and second, “Property is theft!” Proudhon met with and debated notable philosophers and thinkers of his age, not the least of which being Karl Marx(3). While Marx and Proudhon initially debated their various philosophies on government, their relationship eventually devolved into a bitter and historic feud. Proudhon fervently opposed communist theories with regards to property ownership and summarily rejected the Marxist premise that a system should place the collective in command over someone else’s property in which their labor has been invested(3).
The truly consistent theme with anarchist theory is the presupposition that humanity is inherently a virtuous being. In William Godwin’s book, An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, and Its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness, wrote “Such then is universally the subject of human institution and education. We bring neither virtue nor vice with us at our entrance into the world. But the seeds of error are ordinarily sown so early as to pass with superficial observers for innate.” Thus Godwin asserts that, by nature, man is naturally inclined to goodness and only by indoctrination through social and governmental systems, does man begin to grow corrupted.
This seemingly inconsequential worldview is, in reality, the crux of the entire debate. True anarchy must be argued from a place of fundamental human virtue. The belief that humanity is, by original nature, a virtuous creature, has no basis is historic evidence and suggests that government is the sole corrupting factor. What this philosophy observes correctly is that government is a threat to individual liberty, what it fails to rightly conclude however, is that governments fail because of the influence of humanity. Humanity is a morally corrupted and tyrannical species, inclined to its own destruction as well as the destruction of others. Government is a system of authority and laws, only operating justly when it defends the individual rights of the governed. The best of government systems will, at some point, fail, as they are doomed to be run by humans. Therefore, reasoned individuals must work to safeguard individual liberty while creating laws to protect individuals from one another.
To discover a simple yet profound rebuttal to such anarchist philosophies, consider a quote from Federalist 51 by James Madison:
“If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”
Madison rightly argues that government, as an inherently dangerous entity, must be restrained in power and mobility. However, in complete opposition to the premises for both Godwin and Proudhon, Madison also correctly observes that humanity is also an opponent to individual liberty. Madison asserts that since both government and the governed are equally dangerous to the rights of the individual, it is necessary to create bulwarks between the powers of both. An individual can cause tyranny and oppression and thus can expand his power and influence when at the helm of government.
Government and the individual are inextricably bound together, thus inevitably reducing the rights others when the opportunity presents itself, regardless of system. Therefore, to trust an anarchist system is equitable to trusting humanity, likewise, turning over unlimited power to governments is equitable to surrendering the entirety of your liberty to human nature. Reason’s demand would be to establish a restrained government that is exclusively granted limited and clearly stated roles, while creating provisions within that government to ensure the tyranny of the individual is also reduced.
Such an example can be found in the United States’ Constitutional Republican system. While imperfect, this system was designed with numerous checks and balances set in place that would prevent the tyranny of either the government or the individual. While improvements may be found to build onto this system, the foundation will likely remain one of the greatest and most liberty friendly systems known to man.
- William Godwin, An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, Vol. I. 1793