The Generalist

Why “Anarcho-capitalism” is an Oxymoron

There are quite a few so-called “libertarian” groups touting so-called “anarcho-capitalism”. To my mind this term is nothing but an oxymoron that serves to confuse people who have otherwise correct instincts. This might be because one of the apparent proponents of the idea was none other than Murray Rothbard. It’s possible, then, that this is just a case of guru-worship. At any rate, these are my views on the subject.

Before getting into a debate about complex philosophical topics like this, it is always a good idea to carefully define terms, so here are my definitions. Keep in mind that, as I will be discussing an ideal, I am using terms in the normative sense, that is, for example, law as it should be not law as it currently legislated. In other words, we are discussing theory and not practice.

  • Politics – the study of the proper structure of a collective such that each individual within that collective has the maximum freedom to act ethically[1]
  • Law – the body of ideas which delimit the manner in which individuals may act within society such that the political goal is achieved
  • Government – the organized enforcement of law. A proper government is, in essence, a collective form of self-defense (and self-defense is the only lawful use of force.[2])
  • Anarchy – the absence of organized law enforcement
  • Capitalism – the economic ideal under which anyone may aspire to ownership of the means of production. Capitalism is the natural development of a proper political system.

Now, it should be clear from the above definitions that anarchy and capitalism are incompatible. Capitalism is the result of a proper system of government – i.e., it develops from a political (collective) system under which the individual’s rights to property are respected and the recognition of those rights is enforced. Without such enforcement, there is no means of dealing with criminals other than for each individual to engage in war each time he encounters one.

Now the so-called “agency-theorist” will argue that through freedom of association individuals are “free” to band together to protect themselves. This is true, however, the moment they do, organized law enforcement is born, at least within the collective, and there is no longer a state of anarchy. Everything external to that collective, however, is still potentially in a state of war – only now it is war between tribes.

Now, the same anarchist may argue that these “small” governments are preferable to the large centralized one. Again, this depends upon the state of the “small” government. If it is a criminal government, the same problem exists – the potential for tribal warfare. If they are not criminal then of course there is a consistency of law and so which “tribe” you belong to is largely irrelevant. It is for precisely this reason that there will always be a natural tendency towards centralization. Any proper government which encounters a criminal one is justified in removing the criminal government if it is within its power to do so. In fact, if it were possible to ensure that criminals could never gain control of the machinery of government, a world government would be ideal. Yet of course, this is impossible – the very thing that makes a proper government necessary is the very thing that threatens it – the existence of criminals.

It is because of this fact that government can only ever approach the ideal, it can never reach it. This is not a defect specific to Man – it is a defect of life itself. All living things are subject to ignorance and uncertainty and it is ignorance and uncertainty which breed crime, on the parts of both the perpetrator and the victim. Only a state of perfect knowledge would allow for a perfect government – but of course in a state of perfect knowledge no government would be needed.

That life is subject to ignorance is a priori true and from this it follows that there is no such thing as Utopia. The “agency theorists” make the same error that the socialists and globalists make. They assume that a “fool proof” government is possible. But fools make excellent criminals and even better victims. For this reason, neither world government nor anarchy will ever prevent tyranny, injustice or war. As many wise men have pointed out, liberty requires constant vigilance. This is not idle talk. There is no short cut.

The belief that a short cut exists and talk of the means to achieve it serve only to facilitate the eventual decline of a proper government. The populace becomes complacent, believing they cannot be victimized, and greater and greater ignorance of political matters becomes the norm. It is this ignorance that eventually leads to the criminal takeover of the machinery of government and so governments, like the population, have a life cycle with a difference only in the relative length of time they persist.

Does this mean that Man should not strive for ideals? After all, they are only approachable, and never fully realizable. This is a little like saying that one should not attempt to prolong his life because he must inevitably die. As with the question of life and death, recognizing these truths can only help us to better approach the ideals.

Some means of preserving a proper government do exist and are generally attempted. Democracy, for example, minimizes the ignorance of any one man, federation, i.e., the maintenance of local governments, checks the power of the central government, separation of powers limits the effects of any one arm of government, representation sets up a system of local responsibility, etc. Even so, these ideas can only maintain a proper government when the people are vigilant. None of them is “fool-proof” and none of them ever can be.

It should now be clear that our personal values are inextricably linked with and dependent upon the knowledge and vigilance of our fellow man. It is of this fact that criminals are least aware. They imagine that slaves can approach the productivity of free men. They confuse relative wealth with absolute wealth and imagine that there will always be a supply of able men to plunder, even as they murder all the able men. All man can hope for is to stamp out such ignorance whenever he encounters it. No one wants to hear this. But burying one’s head in the sand is exactly what needs to be avoided. Anarchy, which is essentially the return to a primitive existence, is certainly not the answer.


[1] a discussion of this is a bit outside the scope of my article, but I will try to make this a little clearer for those who are new to the subject. Because knowledge remains unalterably dispersed among individuals, no man or group of men will ever be in a position to determine what action is for another man the ethical action. This determination must always be made by the acting individual alone and therefore he must always be as free as possible to make that determination – even if he may ultimately err. It is to ensure this freedom that laws are instituted which prohibit to men those acts which interfere with his neighbor’s identical freedoms. This is the basis for the ideal known as Natural Law.

[2] Please note that government is NOT defined as a “monopoly on the use of force”. This idea contains within it the notion that government rightfully exercises some power that is forbidden to the people. Under a proper government the citizens retain the individual right to self-defense and the only purpose of government is the defense of the collective. A proper government might under certain conditions err and imprison an individual who has exercised this right because it is often difficult determine that an act was performed in defense. It is for this reason that citizen are generally expected to leave law enforcement to the government. Nevertheless, I think it’s important not to confuse this with a “monopoly” on force.

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  1. PirateRothbard

    16 Nov 2009 - 5:00 pm

    So your definition of anarchy is different from those of us who believe in anarcho-capitalism. Isn’t this a who cares issue? You have your definition of anarchy, I have mine.

  2. Lisa

    17 Nov 2009 - 8:54 pm

    If this is your religion, then of course, you’re right, it’s a “who cares” issue, and there is no point in arguing. If, however, you think your “belief” has some logical merit that I am missing, then by all means, convince me. Define your terms and go for it.

  3. Rick

    12 Mar 2013 - 12:15 pm

    I know this was posted in 2009, but this is a great article! Thank you.

  4. Lisa

    12 Mar 2013 - 2:11 pm

    To Rick, Thank you so much for you kind comment. It’s nice to know someone is reading!

  5. Mike

    12 Mar 2013 - 4:36 pm

    Excellent article. Rick, above, posted on FB. Thanks

  6. Tom

    24 Apr 2013 - 5:35 pm

    “Capitalism is the natural development of a proper political system.”
    This is just simply NOT part of the definition of capitalism, it’s an unfounded, indefensible, shoe-horned addition that the author has made for the express purpose of attacking Anarcho-Capitalism. It presupposes two things which, I believe, destroy it’s credibility:
    1. That Capitalism can only result from a political process.
    2. That political processes, by nature, should only result in capitalist systems.
    It ignores the innate knowledge we have about the nature of property. Property predates AND predicates a political framework, not the other way around.

    Anarchic Capitalism, on it’s basic level as a collection of theories, adheres to the non-aggression principle. To try and claim that Anarchism and Capitalism are incompatible you would have to demonstrate that the exercise of private property necessitates the initiation of force. The various organized amalgamations of free individuals that may arise in an anarchistic society are not an argument against the theories, or a demonstration of their incompatibility. Only once such a group begins to enforce it’s will on others does it divorce itself from anarchism.

    Not only does this entire article smack of ignorance, it makes arguments expressly from ignorance. It appeals to a statement of pragmatism, for instance, in what can only be described as a death throe for the author, in exhaustion of less useless things to say.

    Now I haven’t read anything else of this author, but I’d be blind it I didn’t see the glaring sympathies they have for the cause of a free society, that’s very comforting to see. I only hope that if they read this they re-think the way they examine political philosophies in a manner which isn’t designed to re-affirm their own views. You can’t be honest to others before being honest to yourself, and this article is laced with dogmatism.

  7. Marxist Hypocrisy 101

    9 Jun 2017 - 1:44 pm

    Weak article and terrible argument that rests entirely on a false claim which the author never makes an authentic attempt to reinforce; Capitalism is NOT the result of government, and in no way requires government to operate. Perhaps the author should actually learn what these terms mean.

    It is “Anarcho-Communism” that is the oxymoron, the conceit that one can somehow have a totalitarian state that is also stateless.

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