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Anarchy Reconsidered

Updated on July 26, 2018
Chuck profile image

A part-time college economics & finance instructor who began his career in banking, Chuck frequently writes on money & economics online.

Radicals Have Given Anarchy a Bad Name

Mention the word anarchy and most people visualize chaos and mayhem. This image of chaos certainly fits society's experience with anarchy in the past century or so.

After all, it was an anarchist, Leon Czolgosz, who assassinated President McKinley on September 6, 1901 in Buffalo, New York and were behind the earlier 1886 Haymarket Riot in Chicago.

In more recent times, many of the radical groups involved in the turbulence of the 1960s in Europe and the U.S. were either anarchists or influenced by anarchism.

The incidents above and other are all examples of the dark side of anarchism, which is heavily mixed with nihilism and violence.

Supporters of this type of anarchism have no plan other than the idea that by destroying the existing social structure they will make way for a better society. But they have no alternative to offer in place of the existing social structure. They are simply a demolition crew that destroys in hopes that what replaces the present structure is better..

An Idea Whose Time May Have Come

However, there is another strain of anarchism that is both non-violent and has a vision for an alternative type of social organization.

This variety of anarchism is radically different from the violent, nihilist variety. A core belief of this strain of anarchism is their opposition to violence and stress on the supremacy of the rights of the individual.

These anarchists also have an idealistic, but clear, vision of how such a society would operate in the absence of outside control.

In a nutshell, these anarchists believe in the free market principle that everyone is guided by self-interest.

However, they also realize and believe that humans are social creatures who have discovered the benefits of cooperation.

Throughout history, society has advanced, materially and spiritually, as people have learned to cooperate and specialize, rather than everyone doing their own thing and being totally self-sufficient.

Voluntary trade among members of society is the basis of civilization as well as one of its benefits.

While the easy route to acquisition of what one needs and wants in life is through cheating and force, most people avoid that route, not because they necessarily like their neighbor but because it doesn't work. A person may achieve some short term success by cheating but, as that person's reputation spreads, people will begin to avoid him and the cheater's opportunities for trade will decrease.

Similarly with violence. A stronger person using violence against weaker people sets the precedent for someone stronger to take from him. The same self interest which motivates each individual to think of themselves first is also the force that motivates us to work and produce as well as to deal fairly with others.

Farmers don't spend their days toiling in their fields out of a desire to feed the hungry but rather to produce a good, food, that others not only want and need but for which they are willing to pay.

The owners and workers in a factory have the same motivation. The result is factory workers are fed and farmers have clothes, tools and other manufactured products.

Similarly, people don't cheat and rob, not so much because these are wrong but because these activities are not in a person's long term self interest. In the view of these believers in anarchy, individual self-interest is sufficient to bring about a society that is both peaceful and productive without the need for a government to force them to be peaceful and productive.

Since government of some type have existed since the beginning of recorded history, it is difficult for most of us, myself included, to visualize a world without government. Logical as the arguments of the anarchists may seem, it is difficult to place our full faith in the idea that self-interest of others alone will prevent everyone from turning to violence.

Yet, when we look at it, how many of us obey society's rules not because of fear of punishment but out of self-interest? Is it the fear of being caught and fined for driving north in the southbound lane of the freeway or fear of getting killed by colliding with another car that causes us to drive in the correct lane?

Do we send our children to school because the law says we have to or because we want them to have a shot at the opportunities in life that an education offers? The fact is, most laws are obeyed because, fines and other legal punishments aside, we gain more from following the rule than from violating it.

In addition to the logic of people naturally acting in socially beneficial and cooperative ways without being forced,we have to look at the record of government sponsored violence in the twentieth century.

That century, which saw a huge expansion of government power world wide, was one of the bloodiest, if not the bloodiest, eras in human history. We are all aware of the vast number of deaths that resulted from World War I and World War II alone.

119.4 Million People Slaughtered by their Own Governments

According to University of Hawaii Political Science Professor Emeritus R.J. Rummel, (see link to his website below) about 24 million people, soldiers and civilians, died in battle during these two World Wars.

For all the 20th century's wars, total civilian and military deaths came to about 35,654,000. Given that a fundamental reason for government is to protect the lives and property of its citizens, this is a rather poor record.

But it gets worse. The real focus of Professor Rummel's efforts is his chronicling of non-combat slaughter of people by their own governments. His figure of 119,394,000 victims of death at the hands of their own governments, dwarfs the number of deaths due to war.

These figures do not include criminals executed for recognized capital crimes such as murder, or civilian deaths due to war (those figures are included in the war casualty figures cited above), but rather the simple slaughtering of innocent people merely to advance the political agendas of characters like Joseph Stalin, Adolph Hitler, Mao Tse-tung and other assorted thugs.

While the vast majority of these deaths, both in war and peace, were the result of actions by totalitarian governments, these totalitarian governments did rule the lives of a majority of the people on the planet during the twentieth century and most were recognized as legitimate governments in the community of nations.

Big Government and Economic Decline

Economics was the driving force behind the rise of the totalitarian governments and the expansion of power in democratic governments in the twentieth century. The popular belief, at least among progressive and other related socialist/fascist/communist politicians and their apologists, was that government could guide us to prosperity and even utopia.

There was a certain logic to this myth and it was believed by many.

However, today, with a century of history behind us, we can see that government was just as efficient at destroying prosperity as it was destroying people.

After some seventy years of misrule by the communists, Russia went from an emerging industrial nation at the beginning of the twentieth century to a third world basket case by the end of the century.

During much of the second half of the Twentieth Century, the Chinese communists tried to reduce population growth with a "family" policy of forced abortions and sterilizations. Not only did the program fail to reduce population growth, economic growth continued to stagnate.

When the Communist rulers of China were finally forced to relax their hold on the economy, living standards shot up and, despite their huge population, that nation is beginning to experience labor shortages in certain sectors of their economy.

Or take Great Britain, the cradle of the Industrial Revolution. Great Britain was the leading economic power at the start of the century and, like Russia, after years of gross mismanagement by a series of Labour and left of center Tory governments was reduced to nearly third world status.

Less Government Equals More Economic Growth and Less Poverty

But there were some glimmers of light in this economic gloom. Hong Kong, a small island colony (until 1999) of Great Britain with a good port and a many people. A minor outpost of the British Empire that, like the rest of Japanese occupied Asia following the end of World War II found its economy in shambles.

However, unlike other places, Hong Kong had two things going for it following the end of the war. Its colonial government had been evacuated to safety at the start of the war and, following the exit of the Japanese found itself temporarily without a government. Rather than falling into chaos, the people went to work rebuilding the colony. Hong Kong's second stroke of luck was the appointment of John Cowperthwaite to oversee the reconstruction of the colony.

Upon his arrival, Cowperthwaite noticed that the economy had started recovering on its own. Rather than using his power to have the government step in and help the economy, he stood by and let it revive on its own.

Doing nothing proved to be a daunting job as Cowperthwaite had to constantly fight off pleas by special interests for help as well as keep meddling bureaucrats from London out of the picture.

While Great Britain sank to near third world economic status, Hong Kong prospered and even surpassed Great Britain in terms of prosperity, seeing its GDP (Gross Domestic Product which is the total monetary value of a nation's economic output in a given year) grow to exceed that of Great Britain - all this from a colony consisting of a tiny island and a few acres of land on the mainland.

The Amazing Growth of the U.S. Economy in the 20th Century

The U.S. which enjoyed a lower level of government interference in every day life, despite the best efforts of the progressive Wilson, Hoover, Roosevelt and Obama administrations to reverse this, than most nations, managed to rise from fourth rate status (behind Russia and Germany) at the start of the Twentieth Century to become the wealthiest nation on earth by the end of the century.

One way to visualize the massive size of the U.S. economy today is to consider that the output of a single state, California, or the revenues of a single company, Wal-Mart, alone exceed the GDP of most nations.Further, if California and Wal-Mart were to be spun off as sovereign nations, not only would each of them retain their dominant economic status, but the U.S., even without them, would remain the world's largest economy - have the largest GDP - in the world.

Today, there are numerous examples of nations which, after existing under crushing poverty during most of the twentieth century, threw off the dead hand of government and, with low taxes and few regulations, achieved a high level of prosperity for their people almost overnight.

Growing Serious Debate Among Scholars on Both Sides

The dismal record of government with regard to protecting the people's welfare and the growing number of nations that are prospering by drastically reducing the role of government is causing many people to reconsider how much government we really need.

Adding to this is a growing body scholarship being produced by libertarian and Austrian School theorists, especially the late Murray Rothbard (1926 - 1995), (see link below for more information on Rothbard) advocating alternatives to the present nation state model of social organization, and you have the start of a foundation for an alternative framework.

Evidence that this is not simply a set of random events, but can be seen in the increasing number of scholars, outside the libertarian and Austrian School spheres, who are seriously commenting and evaluating, positively and negatively, on anarchist theories of social organization.

Rothbard, who was virtually ignored by the mainstream academic community during his lifetime, is now beginning to be mentioned regularly and his works are increasingly cited in mainstream academic literature.

Nobel laureates, like economist James Buchanan, have been studying the concept of anarchy and, while not advocating it outright, are beginning to look upon aspects of the theory with favor.

Others, like economist Gordon Tullock, are offering serious critiques of the theories and writings of the supporters of anarchism.

Criticism, like Tullock's is positive in the sense that serious scholars, like Tullock, don't waste their time trying to refute crackpot ideas (as evidenced by the lack of serious criticisms of the work published by outfits like the Flat Earth Society) as ridiculous ideas don't have to be refuted - their nonsense is easily seen by all.

By engaging in open debate with proponents of anarchism, critics are acknowledging that the ideas have substance. This critical debate helps the case for anarchy by bringing attention to the ideas behind anarchy theory and disseminating these ideas further into society. Scholarly criticism of this nature also forces proponents of the the theory to look at what their critics are saying and respond by either proving that the criticism is not relevant or modifying the theory to correct the weaknesses the critics point out.

Is Anarchy the Wave of the Future?

So, is government about to disappear?

I doubt it.

Can society really live without some entity having the power, beyond mere self-interest, to enforce rules?

Like all but a few committed believers, I also doubt that.

I can't imagine a world where bullies cease to exist and if bullies exist there has to be some counter force to thwart them.

Finally, does this mean that theories of anarchy will simply remain an obscure topic to be debated by a few academics?

Again, the answer is no.

While pure anarchy will never exist in practice on a global or near global scale, it will exist as both an alternative to powerful government and as a standard against which government failures can be measured.

As such positive anarchy theory will compete with big government theory for people's support and, just as in the market for goods and services, competition forces producers to constantly improve quality and drive down cost (by being more efficient).

The market for ideas is no different and in the market for ideas politicians will be continually forced to focus more on protecting citizens and property and less on increasing their power and helping their special interest supporters.

© 2006 Chuck Nugent


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    • Evan G Rogers profile image

      Evan G Rogers 

      10 years ago from Dublin, Ohio

      Anarchy is the only system of government that doesn't rely on theft,and thus wins any and all moral arguments.

      I was shocked to see someone actually take the subject seriously.

      Check out my hubs for more discussion about the philosophy of Anarchy and Austrian economics - each one points you towards a fantastic book that will change the way you think.

      Good stuff, Chuck.

    • JOE BARNETT profile image


      10 years ago

      Hmmm very interesting! great hub!

    • Chuck profile imageAUTHOR

      Chuck Nugent 

      10 years ago from Tucson, Arizona

      Joe Barnett - thanks for visiting my Hub and for your questions and comments.

      First of all I think that it is important to distinguish between a revolutionary or social reformer and an anarchist. A revolutionary seeks to tear down an existing society and replace it with a new one. A social reformer like Martin Luther King Jr. or Gloria Steinman (two you mentioned above) seek to remove or change one or more institutions in a society and reform or replace that institution.

      Anarchists, on the other hand seek to remove the existing government (peacefully or violently) and not replace it.

      A rough analogy would be to think of revolutionaries or social reformers as being similar to a demolition company that works with builders. The demolition company, like the revolutionary, removes the existing structure so that a new one can be built.

      Anarchists, on the other hand, are more like arsonists who just like to destroy a building without any intention of replacing it.

      In the Hub I did make the distinction between violent and non-violent anarchists. Some violent anarchists simply want to use violence to destroy and remove the institution of government while others simply like the thrill of destruction.

      The non-violent anarchists simply advocate the removal of government and giving people the freedom to manage their own affairs without being controlled or overseen by a government.

      The late Austrian economist Murray Rothbard ( ) was an advocate of peaceful anarchy and wrote extensively on how a society could be constructed and function using the incentives of the free market rather the force of government to manage society.

      As I stated in the Hub, I am not convinced that Rothbard's ideal system would work but it can serve as a model against which to judge the effectiveness of government and how much government we should have.

    • JOE BARNETT profile image


      10 years ago

      ha ha ha tony!

    • tonymac04 profile image

      Tony McGregor 

      10 years ago from South Africa

      Very good Hub, Chuck. And thanks for the interesting links. Not sure how I missed this one earlier, but thanks to Joe I have now found it and bookmarked it.

      Love and peace


    • JOE BARNETT profile image


      10 years ago

      i know the concept but had never thought or read it's definition through. this hub was rich in content and thorough. so then charles manson is the only anarchist or rather a wanna be nihlist(violent). mlk, gloria steinem and ghandhi would be the other kind if i'm guessing this right(non-violent).but theirs was not to destroy as much as it was to change, correct? the term anarchy or anarchist has a negative connotation and is determined and given by the established system or government.since everything is a system then anarchy only works to eliminate one system for another.true? i wonder what the anarchists call themselves, reverend,jimmy hoffa, walter reuther, George Washington? they are anarchists only while the initial system or government stands. then, they become the fore fathers,the leaders and or the presidents of new governments and systems. so then to say anarchist is only to define the first half of the you say to destroy gov't down to the individual level is a theory i think improbable also. very interesting and thought provoking. great hub!

    • profile image


      11 years ago

      The only problem with anarchy is that humans by nature are leaders or followers. We have a tendency to subconsciously create a hierarchy of some sort, which of course defeats the purpose of anarchists. Even the anarchist groups have some semblance of organization, a leader with followers, which is government boiled down to its extreme basic components.

      Not only that, but what do anarchists do when they accomplish their goal, the removal of a government? The very nature of anarchy prevents them from accepting the establishment of another government.

    • Things Considered profile image

      Things Considered 

      11 years ago from North Georgia Foothills

      Good hub. Great analysis!

    • Sibli Luaxessna profile image

      Sibli Luaxessna 

      11 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Excellent HUB chuck, Anarchy like all pure idealist visions doesn’t work in practice by definition simply an absence of not only government but law. I for one would take full advantage of it and mow down any anarchist in my way. I agree that conscious debate for alternatives is a mental soup for social evolution to. I personally think it is lost cause though trying to re-invent an idea of no government by ignoring its definition. They might get farther by coming up with something new, a new term without stigma and without an established definition that contradicts every word they utter. That probly won’t happen in the mainstream anytime soon, although with the internet who can say. I do believe there are a lot of people who romanticize about people just getting along, or the pseudo-chaos that some hope would allow them to loot and pillage what they can’t buy now. A whole new term, with intelligent language roots and a practitioner’s definition would be much better than beating the pale horse.

      That was a solid HUB. Great Job, I didn’t want to like it honest.



    • Eric Balkan profile image

      Eric Balkan 

      13 years ago from Gaithersburg

      Anarchy is not just either nihilism or anarcho-capitalism. There's actually another choice: anarcho-syndicalism (worker coops), which briefly came to life in Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War and seems to be coming back in abandoned factories in Argentina.

      Re Rothbard and anarcho-capitalism: there's a huge problem in that some people, largely alpha males, will get economic power, and then use that economic power to get more economic power, and then use that to get political power. We've seen that in the 19th century US when John D Rockefeller basically owned the oil industry, and the Ohio state legislature as well. "Who has the gold makes the rules"

      While that was a great time to be an industrialist, it was a pretty lousy time to be an ordinary worker. There were good reasons why the government -- after years of labor riots -- finally felt compelled to pass anti-trust legislation, occupational safety legislation, child labor laws, etc.

      The social contract concept seems like a better idea, though I've always been sympathetic to the motives behind anarchy.

      - Eric (philosophy & economics)

    • profile image


      13 years ago

      The popular concept of anarchy is the absolute absence of order. This is of course not what is meant by those who speak in favor of such a atate. What is meant is an atmosphere in which the socialogical environment exists and evolves minus the engineering of the intelectually elite. To expound beyond this will be unnecessary for those who have grasped what I have said and pointless to those who have not.

    • profile image


      13 years ago

      Anarchy is as anarchy does! If it brings attention to things that are swept under the carpet, then great! It gets people out of their comfortable armchairs and stirs them up a bit and hopefully make them think a bit. As long as my routine of lazing around and having tea at eleven isn't threatended! :)


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