Lisa Jones Confuses Anarchy with Proper Government

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Lisa Jones Confuses Anarchy with Proper Government

by Ari Armstrong, December 6, 2005

I find it hard to believe that the Rocky Mountain News had no other Speakout in the lineup. Yet instead of making room for hot political issues like immigration, eminent domain, identification checks on buses, the state budget, and health care, the News ran a badly-argued Speakout by Lisa Jones on December 2 allegedly about anarchy. I do think it's a good idea for newspapers to publish articles about core ideas. But those articles should at least have some semblance of coherent argument.

Jones's central error is to confuse anarchy with a government limited in function to protecting individual rights. That's a rather significant error. She also makes several lesser errors.

Jones writes, "I wonder if most political debates today aren't between right and left, but between anarchism and rule of law. By rule of law I mean the U.S. Constitution and our system of representative democracy. I mean Equal Justice Under Law... Not that we necessarily have equal justice under law in America, but that's the plan."

Doesn't Jones ever read the newspaper, listen to the radio, watch television, or read popular blogs? "Most political debates" are not about anarchy; indeed, hardly any are. And Jones seems to know little about existing debates about anarchy, such as the one I entered last month.

Jones mentions "Christian anarchism, which preaches that secular laws unjustly impinge upon God's law," but she doesn't explain how Christian anarchy is supposed to work. Offhand, I can't name a single living so-called Christian anarchist (i.e., an anarchist who holds a specifically Christian sort of anarchism; Lew Rockwell is an anarchist who happens to also be religious). If Jones knows of any, it would have been helpful for her to name them and describe their ideas. (I was surprised that Google turned up about 17,000 entries for "Christian anarchism," and there is a Wikipedia entry about it.)

Jones rightly criticizes the "religious fundamentalist movement that would, at its most extreme, ban homosexuality, contraception and abortion." There's probably good reason to think that so-called Christian anarchy is really a variant of, or leads inextricably to, theocracy, but Jones doesn't describe that reason.

Jones offers good reasons to oppose "green anarchism:" "its proponents are anti-civilization," and "many green anarchists support monkeywrenching, a euphemism for vandalism and burning down ski lodges." This is a real threat. However, while Jones mentions the dangerous, statist analog of "Christian anarchy," she fails to mention the dangerous, statist version of environmentalism.

Jones includes a quick denunciation of socialist anarchists.

Her section allegedly about anarcho-capitalism is more detailed:

I distrust those who say that aggression and coercion ultimately result in benefit. So maybe I'm like the anarcho-capitalists who oppose government conscription and the use of military force unless it's a clear, contractually defined case of self-defense. But anarcho-capitalists also oppose taxation and the very existence of the state. They want to privatize all public institutions, such as schools, and rely on a self-regulating competitive marketplace instead of government. They must mean self-regulating in the sense that foxes are self-regulating in a henhouse. Plus, I don't mind chipping in for public roads, schools and sewer systems. Insofar as tax revenues are used wisely for the common good, I support limited taxation.

Here, Jones offers a package deal: she describes many political positions that are not specific to anarcho-capitalism. Thus, she distorts the meaning of anarcho-capitalism and wrongly attaches the label to many who vehemently oppose anarcho-capitalism.

By analogy, if I were to say that a defining characteristic of green anarchists is that they want to limit pollution (which they do), environmentalists who oppose anarchy would rightly complain that limiting pollution is not specific to green anarchy.

Jones correctly states that anarcho-capitalists "oppose... the very existence of the state" and "want to privatize all public institutions."

The rest of the positions that Jones discusses are not specific to anarcho-capitalism. Most people who oppose military force except in clear cases of self-defense, oppose taxation, or want to privatize schools are not anarchists and are explicitly opposed to anarchy.

For example, the Objectivist position is that government is essential for protecting individual rights, and the proper functions of government are to provide police protection, run the courts, and establish a military. Last month, Craig Biddle presented this view in Boulder. He argued that government can and should be financed through voluntary means. Biddle doesn't mind chipping in for market roads, schools, and sewer systems, but he wants to do so voluntarily, not through taxation.

Another, perhaps more popular view is that taxation is justified only for police, the courts, and the military. Another possibility is to support taxation for things that are arguably "public goods," like roads, but to oppose taxation for things that are mostly not public goods, such as education. Such possibilities escape Jones.

Jones criticizes the "self-regulating competitive marketplace," yet she fails to point out that the competitive marketplace, according to Objectivists and most self-described libertarians, entails certain governmental oversight. Specifically, government is supposed to protect property rights, stop people from initiating force, enforce laws against fraud, enable torts, and prevent pollution at least in cases where a victim and polluter can be identified.

Jones thus also treats "regulation" as a package deal. She fails to distinguish between the sorts of regulations inherent in a market order characterized by property rights, and the sorts of regulations that constitute arbitrary legislative interference in the market. Jones also fails to apply her "fox and henhouse" criticism to the latter sort of regulations, such as Public Choice economists have done (and as Sheldon Richman and Doug Bandow did in Denver on December 3).

Within a context of property rights, the competitive marketplace is indeed self-regulating. Why? Because, if businesses fail to offer quality goods and services, they earn a bad reputation, lose customers, and eventually close down. On the free market, every consumer with every dollar helps decide what the market provides, and how. Thus, the self-regulation of the market is robust and powerful. (John Stossel talked about this when he visited Denver earlier this year.) Yet Jones dismisses over two centuries of economic science with a smart-ass quip.

Jones claims to support taxation for the "common good," but she fails to describe what that means or how she can tell the "common good" from the common bad. Her list of desired governmental services indicates that she confuses currently provided governmental services with ideal ones; in that respect, she is a conservative.

It also would have been nice if Jones had actually mentioned a single anarcho-capitalist or described the essence of the position. Is so happens that I have written about one of the most famous anarcho-capitalists, David Friedman. (I've also written about Randy Barnett, whose The Structure of Liberty describes a "polycentric" legal system.) The thrust of anarcho-capitalism is that, if people were free to contract with defense agencies of their choice, these agencies would tend to negotiate peaceful, efficient settlements of disputes. Ayn Rand objects, arguing that, absent a government with a monopoly on the ultimate use of force within a geographic region, a society would collapse into chaos and violence. Rand denounced anarchists in the strongest terms. So for Jones to effectively conflate the position of Rand with the position of anarcho-capitalists like Murray Rothbard is fairly ridiculous.

Jones liberally spreads careless insults and inaccuracies. Here's how Jones concludes her article:

The ones who scare me are those who sit in Congress or the legislature or corporate boardrooms and declare their contempt for government. They talk of drowning it in the bathtub. Dismantling legal protections like habeas corpus, for example, isn't conservatism. It's a step toward anarchism. To help protect us from the worst impulses of human nature and from the excesses of government, laws are necessary. Under the current system, I have some say in those laws. I can vote, challenge laws and their enforcement in court, protest in the street and talk smack to my heart's content. It's a workable system. The philosophical divide in this country is not between left and right, but between those who want to work within our system of legal checks and balances and those who want to take the system apart for whatever reason. It's a choice between equal justice under law and "Anarchy rules!"

It would have been helpful if Jones had named even a single person "in Congress or the legislature or corporate boardrooms" who has declared "contempt for government." No doubt, many have declared contempt for particular things that particular governments have done. Or does Jones wish to argue that government in the U.S. is above criticism? That would be a recipe for tyranny. Jones fails to distinguish between criticism of particular governmental policies and "contempt for government" per se.

So I challenge Jones to name a single person in Congress or any state legislature or even any corporate boardroom who has expressed "contempt for government" per se. If she cannot do so, then her remarks must be counted as empty smear.

The "bathtub" quote that Jones cites out of context comes from Grover Norquist, who is not a politician. Here's what Norquist said about the bathtub quote:

BILL MOYERS: You're on record as saying, my goal is to cut government in half in 25 years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bath tub. Is that a true statement?

GROVER NORQUIST: No. The first part is an accurate statement of exactly what we're trying to do. We've set as a conservative movement a goal of reducing the size and cost of government in half in 25 years, which is taking it from a third of the economy down to about 17 percent, taking 20 million government employees and looking to privatize and get other opportunities so that you don't have all of the jobs that are presently done by government done by government employees. We need a Federal government that does what the government needs to do, and stops doing what the government ought not to be doing.

I assume that, with her reference to habeas corpus, Jones is referring to the lengthy detention of Jose Padilla. But the partial "dismantling" of "habeas corpus" is not a "step toward anarchism," as Jones ridiculously suggests; it is a step toward tyranny. If Jones's "logic" on this point were extended, she would count an absolute dictatorship as a form of anarchy, which strips the term of all meaning.

Jones rightly criticizes "those who want to take the system apart," given that we live in a nation with the best Constitution ever devised, and one that contains within it appropriate and peaceful mechanisms for reform.

But Jones's suggestion that the "philosophical divide in this country is not between left and right, but between those who want to work within our system of legal checks and balances and those who want to take the system apart" is just silly. Virtually nobody wants to "take the system apart." Anarchism, especially the nihilistic form of Hobbesian anarchy, just isn't part of the popular debate. However, I do agree that the real debate is not between left and right: it is between those who advocate individual rights and those who don't. On that score, Jones is a mixed case, and, as indicated by her Speakout, utterly confused.

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