Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Libertarians and Anarchists

Recently, I was asked “what is the difference between a libertarian and an anarchist?” For many Americans, accustomed to thinking of politics in a “Right-Left” continuum, are confused when they are faced with two ideologies so in-line on many issues and yet so radically different. One way to begin to reconcile the differences is to visualize a political spectrum with two dimensions (like X-Y diagrams in Math class): with the Left and Right in opposition and Democratism in opposition to Authoritarianism.[1] In a diagram drawn like this (see below), we find that Anarchists and Objectivists (followers of Ayn Rand) have as much in common as Anarchists and State Communists (who are called plain Communists in America); in the same vein, Anarchists are directly opposed to Fascists and Fundamentalists, Objectivists to State Communists and Libertarians to Eurosocialists.

So what Anarchists and Libertarians have in common is a belief in personal liberty, an emphasis on decentralization of power and a dislike of governments having control over our lives. At the same time, they are like Communists as they oppose Capitalism, the concentration of private wealth, the oppression of minority groups and consumerism.

I believe that the fundamental difference between Anarchists and their counterparts on the Right (Objectivists and Libertarians) is over private property. As best I can understand it,[2] the Right has collapsed the idea of property rights with personal rights. Morally gained property exists as a hedge against the power of society’s dictates and protection for one’s future goals. The right to hold property, especially land, is a sacred, exclusive one; for instance, a landholder has the right to block public access, to develop as he or she chooses and to ecologically degrade the land. Money (a stand-in for other private property and a form of concentrated social power) can be spent in any way the holder sees fit, provided it does not impede on another’s right to hold property. The Right seeks “market solutions” (those involving private profit, either with private or public property) to social, economic and ecological problems.

However, to the Anarchist, property is not a right and cannot ‘belong’ to a person. There is an old saying “We do not inherent our land from our fathers, but borrow it from our children.” The land and, in one shape or another, all property, existed before the ‘owner’ was born and will exist after they die; at the most, we have a lease to property.

This also means that there is a negation of rights regarding exclusion and use. The Right holds that a person should be able to do however they see fit with what they own, but no-one disagrees that we do not have the right to shoot our neighbor in cold blood… even if we use our own gun and it occurs on our own land. Likewise, we cannot pour arsenic into our neighbor’s well… or at the top of the aquifer that feeds the well on our land. There is no set dividing line between putting a gun to another person’s head and flooding her land with cheap corn and driving her family into absolute poverty. A person’s right to use the property entrusted to them extends only as far as it does not harm other people or the community.[3]

Anarchism does, however, recognize the right to provide for one’s loved ones, community and self through the use and creation of property. Objects of art created for their beauty, or tools for their utility are the creators’ to keep, give or trade as they desire; the act of creating the art or building the object has conveyed that right to the creator. So the factory workers own the objects they create (but with them in this ownership are those who gather the raw materials, make the design and transport the product), until such time as their use runs counter to the rights of the community at large, human and non-human. In other words, in our communities you keep your own toothbrush until you stab someone else with it.

Anarchists also reject property rights because of the effect they have on our values system. Inalienable property rights leads to fetishistic materialism, where the accumulation of objects and property is valued over the lives and livelihoods of people. Valuing profit over people is only possible in a world where the rights of property holders are held above the health and well being of others.

This does not, however, mean that the Anarchist believes in State regulation, for we view the State as primarily an oppressive organization developed for the protection of the property[4] and privilege of the few over the many. Thus Anarchists don’t support zoning, governmental land redistribution, welfare or any other Liberal, Authoritarian projects. We abhor forced collectivization and planned economies.

A rejection of an illegitimate State’s ability to regulate our lives does not equate a rejection of a community’s ability to defend itself from threats, both internal and external. When your neighbor poisons your well, you and your community have the right to stop him, most likely by depriving him of the property he holds in trust[5] and has misused. The deprivation of misused property, provided it does not lead to hunger or other deprivation, ought not to be morally equated with imprisonment, dismemberment or death, which are always violations of another’s human dignity.

In the end, Anarchism is not about defending my rights or my property, but standing up for our dignity and our way of life; it is about community consensus, not bureaucratic fiat and in the area of property, it values good stewardship and treating land and property as being held in trust. We are not kings of our castles, but shepherds of our children’s flocks.

[1] By Democratism, I mean belief in the importance personal liberty, democratic debate and respect for local ideas as a solution to social problems; it is the ‘grassroots’ approach. Authoritarianism is a top-down, experts-provide the answers, we’ll-tell-you-what-to-do approach to problems.

[2] And I’ve read Locke, some Rand and lots of lower-quality pieces of propaganda.

[3] Of course, this will lead to rancorous debate, as it does now, but because the specifics need individual refinement doesn’t mean the basic concept is flawed.

[4] As a side note, Libertarians since Locke have also agreed that the State exists to protect property.

[5] This probably does not equate a fine as we have seen that many Corporations freely violate the law, counting governmental fines as simply part of the cost of doing business. Things would be a little different if the polluting factory were seized or the weapons shipments and vehicles were destroyed.