THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 8, May 1996

Individualist Anarchism =/= Libertarianism

By Wendy McElroy

Exclusive to The Libertarian Enterprise


         In America of the late 19th century, individualist anarchism and libertarianism were synonyms. Today, it is commonplace to assume that few differences exist between individualist anarchists and libertarianists and that such differences can be argued out when we are closer to freedom. Yet a deep ideological schism lies between the two political positions. It is not so deep as to prevent goodwill and active co-operation on shared goals, but the differences between individualist anarchism and libertarianism are at least as significant as their similarities. Indeed, in many cases, both the goals and strategy of current libertarianism are antagonistic to individualist anarchism.
         To understand the nature of the current ideological split, it is useful to view a bit of the background of individualist anarchism, from which libertarianism sprang. And to liken the current schism to another one which occurred in the 19th century.
         In 1833, the American libertarian Josiah Warren issued The Peaceful Revolutionist which was the first anarchist periodical ever published. Warren's two central principles defined 19th century individualist anarchism. They were: the Sovereignty of the Individual; and, Cost is the Limit of Price, also known as the labor theory of value.
         Sovereignty of the Individual is often called 'self-ownership'. Self-ownership refers to the moral claim that every human being has to his or her own body. As a principle, it denies that anyone has a right to power over the life of another peaceful and unconsenting human being.
         'Cost the Limit of Price' -- or the labor theory of value -- states that value results from labor and can come from nowhere else. If I produce something and an enterpreneur pays me $1.00, then sells the good for $1.50, the extra 50 cents have been stolen from me. The labor theory of value recognizes no distinction between profit and plunder.
         Ironically, the split resembles the one that developed between individualist and left anarchism in the 19th century.
         Cost the Limit of Price was a strong tie between individualist and left anarchism, which viewed capitalism as institutionalized force. But individualist anarchists approached capitalism differently because their primary commitment was to a voluntary society. In fact, Benjamin Tucker described the ideal society as "society by contract." They concluded that if you wanted contract with an enterpreneur, it was your business. Everyone had the right to make a foolish contract and no one had the right to interfere in that voluntary process.
         The real difference was in their definitions of what constituted aggression. To individualist anarchists, aggression is defined with reference to property titles, especially the property one has in oneself. Their definition of aggression rests on two concepts: title and consent. Whose property is it?; and, does the owner agree to the transaction?
         By contrast, left anarchism contains the notion of economic coercion; that is, even if a worker consents to a transaction, such as a certain wage, the consent doesn't count because it was obtained through duress. The economic conditions created by capitalism are the equivalent of a gun pointed at his head.
         The notion of economic coercion has implications for another key conceptual difference: namely, how to define "justice". The left anarchist approach to justice is 'ends oriented'; that is, it provides a specific picture of what constitutes a just society. It is a workers' society without a State.
         The individualist anarchist approach to justice is 'means oriented'. It provides no blueprint of the just social arrangement. It says only "anything that is peaceful is just." Communist communities could exist beside capitalist ones, as long as membership in both was voluntary.
         The two forms of anarchism also define the concept of class differently. Left anarchism defines class in economic terms -- that is, in relation to ownership of the means of production. You are a worker or you are a capitalist. Individualist anarchists define class in political terms -- that is, in relation to participation in politics. You are a member of the economic class which lives through voluntary exchange, or you are a member of the political class which steals from the economic class. This is the classic liberal distinction Franz Oppenheimer made between the economic and political means.
         Ironically, these same difference are splitting individualist anarchism from current libertarianism. 20th century individualist anarchism and libertarian both embraces the same economic theory: capitalism. Yet they have come to different definitions of 'aggression', 'justice' and 'class'.
         With regard to 'aggression': individualist anarchism is a call for self-ownership and an absolute rejection of all but defensive force. This leads to a rejection of electoral politics. Of political office, the legal theoriest Lysander Spooner asked 'By what right can one person occupy a position of power over another's life?' He concluded that each individual has the right to delegate such power over his or her own life to another person. But no one has the right to delegate authority over the life of another.
         Voltairine de Cleyre addressed this point as well:
         "A body of voters cannot give into your charge any rights but their own. By no possible jugglery of logic can they delegate the exercise of any function which they themselves do not control. If any individual on earth has a right to delegate his powers to whomsoever he chooses, then every other individual has an equal right; and if each has an equal right, then none can choose an agent for another, without the other's consent."
         More and more, the goal of libertarianism has changed from dismantling the State to joining it. The new goal is to replace the face behind the desk as though it were the face and not the position of power that was the problem. To an individualist anarchist, the problem is any face that assumes or seeks political power. And the onus of proof is not on the anarchist to explain why he objects to someone wanting vast power over his life; the onus is on pro-politics people to explain how such power is justified.
         Yet, to those in the LP, enabling a person into a position of power over unconsenting third parties is not 'aggression'. This constitutes a radically different definition of that term.
         It also reflects a radically different approach to the concepts of 'justice', and 'a class'. The LP reflects an 'ends oriented' view of freedom: that is, freedom is defined by the end of electing the proper people to political office. A just society will result from achieving this end state. This goal is a rejection of the old libertarian version of class theory which states you are a member of the productive economic class, or of the parasitic political one.
         It is commonly assumed that individualist anarchism and libertarianism are two points along the same road, that we are fellow travelers. I disagree. It is my belief that, if the LP is ever successful, it will quickly turn on the individualist anarchists who mistakenly believe themselves to be fellow travelers. They will learn the same lesson that Russian anarchists learned from the Bolsheviks when they took power: we are fellow travelers no more.


"A contributing editor to Liberty magazine, Wendy McElroy has published widely in feminism beginning in 1983 with Freedom, Feminism and the State (CATO) and most recently in 1995 with XXX: A Woman's Right to Pornography (St. Martin's Press). Her articles have appeared in such diverse publications as National Review and Penthouse. Her 'day' job is writing and editing documentaries, some of which have been recorded by Walter Cronkite, George C. Scott and Harry Reasoner."


A JUROR'S CREED: As an American juror, I will exercise my 1000 year old duty to arrive at a verdict, not just on the basis of the facts of a particular case or instructions I am given, but through my ability to reason, my knowledge of the Bill of Rights, and my individual conscience. -- L. Neil Smith



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