Ludwig von Mises on Anarchism

This is a Facebook note I published in February 2011.

Anarchists (”free market anarchists” or ”anarcho-capitalists)” are flocking in and around the Ludwig von Mises Institute, both in the US and here in Sweden. So what did Mises himself think about anarchism and anarchists? He covers the subject in a section in The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science, p. 98f, so let me quote:

Government as such is not only not an evil, but the most necessary and beneficial institution, as without it no lasting social cooperation and no civilization would be possible.

And a bit later on:

A shallow-minded school of social philosophers, the anarchists, chose to ignore the matter by suggesting a stateless organization of mankind. They simply passed over the fact that men are not angels. They were too dull to realize that in the short run an individual or a group of individuals can certainly further their own interests at the expense of their own and all other peoples’ long-run interests. A society that is not prepared to thwart the attacks of such asocial and short-sighted aggressors is helpless and at the mercy of its least intelligent and most brutal members. While Plato founded his utopia on the hope that a small group of perfectly wise and morally impeccable philosophers will be available for the supreme conduct of affairs, anarchists implied that all men without any exception will be endowed with perfect wisdom and moral impeccability. They failed to conceive that no system of social cooperation can remove the dilemma between a man’s or a group’s interests in the short run and those in the long run.

Note the insultory language here: anarchists are “shallow-minded” and “dull”. If I said that of an anarchist, I would probably be accused of making an ad hominem argument.

But that was an aside. The substantive thing here is that we have a group of social philosophers – “free market anarchists” – who believe that a government or a state is evil by its very nature (and sometimes even the source of all evil) – and yet are willing to accept as their mentor, master and dean someone who claims the exact opposite: that government is “the most necessary and beneficial institution”.

The main flaw of “free market anarchism” is that it refuses to make a distinction between initiatory and retaliatory force. They oppose any government, even the most limited government, one that only engages in retaliatory force against initiators of force (such as criminals and foreign invaders), on the grounds that it uses force. (And they are of course blind to the fact that those “protection agencies” with which they propose to replace government, would also use force.)

Mises is aware of this distinction. When he says that “men are not angels”, he refers to the fact that some men are criminals, and that criminal acts will have to be thwarted. Thwarting criminality and foreign aggression is certainly both necessary and beneficial.

Mises had a psychological explanation for the fact that some fairly intelligent people become anarchists: it was “a reaction to the deification of the state”. (I got this from Hülsmann’s Mises: The Last Knight of Liberalism, p. 1025.) I have said virtually the same thing myself: people become anarchists because they are fed up with the way governments conduct their affairs today; and they cannot conceive of a limited government that does nothing but protect our rights against domestic and foreign aggressors. But that there is a psychological explanation for anarchism does not make anarchism right.

Also, compare my Mises quotes to what Ayn Rand writes in her essay “The Nature of Government”:

In unthinking protest against this trend [the trend toward more and more statism], some people are raising the question of whether government as such is evil and whether anarchy is the ideal social system. Anarchy, as a political concept, is a naïve floating abstraction: for all the reasons discussed above, a society without an organized government would be at the mercy of the first criminal who came along and would precipitate it into the chaos of gang warfare.

I see no difference between Rand and Mises on this issue. And I’m neither shallow-minded nor dull.

$ $ $

The response to this note was largely positive, although (of course) a couple of anarchists admonished me to wade through all the anarchocapitalist literature before I open my mouth. There was also some lively and friendly discussion. I will quote one of my own comments, because I think I am on to something important here:

There is one thing I think needs to be emphasized:

We have plenty of historical experience with various forms of government, or various forms of organizing society. We have primitive tribes, Greek city states, the Roman empire, feudalism, absolute monarchy. representative government, modern dictatorships (to name those that readily come to mind). We can study the historical evidence and draw conclusions from it, e.g. that representative government is a great step forward, or that there is a strong correlation between the degree of freedom in a society and the degree of wealth.

But we have absolutely no experience with a situation where a proper limited government (or “night watchman state” as I usually call it) is vying with anarchocapitalist protection agencies. So there is no historical evidence to point to and draw conclusions from. All we can do is imagine scenarios.

I think this is one reason it is so difficult to get the point across to the anarchocapitalists. They paint a rosy scenario of protection agencies peacefully competing with one another; and we paint a bleak scenario of protection agencies fighting it out in the streets. When we are fighting the anarchocapitalists, we are fighting against floating abstractions and fantasies.

$ $ $

Addendum 2016: An objection one commonly hears from anarcho-capitalists is that Mises is merely referring to left-wing anarchism and that his view does not apply to right-wing capitalism or anarcho-capitalism. This was a development he simply did not know about and thus could not criticize.

But this objection does not hold water. Murray Rothbard, the father of modern anarcho-capitalism, first developed this idea as early as the late 40’s. Mises certainly was aware of this. (See on this Jörg Guido Hülsmann’s Mises: The Last Knight of Liberalism, the section “Last Skirmishes with the Anarchists”, p. 1023–1030.)

$ $ $

PS. On Facebook I was asked this question:

Why is it so important that Rand and Mises were in agreement?

Yes, why on earth? Obviously, this whole blog post is a gross ad verecundiam or “argument from authority”. I just feel so much better having two great authorities behind me than just one.

However, it so happens that they are both right.


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: