I recently sat down with author, editor, and left-libertarian extraordinaire Sheldon Richman to discuss political philosophy. Here’s the video!
You can also find a transcription (slightly edited for clarity’s sake) below.
TR: Good evening, everybody. I’m Tommy Raskin.
I’m speaking today with Sheldon Richman. He is a polymath, a libertarian, a leftist, a rabble-rouser. He is the executive editor for the Libertarian Institute. He has worked with the Cato Institute in the past, and we’re really happy to have you here, Sheldon.
SR: Great to be here. Thanks for inviting me.
TR: Great. Now, I figure that a conversation isn’t much fun if we don’t have someone playing devil’s advocate. I find much of your work very compelling and persuasive, but I’m just going to push at the bounds of propriety a little bit (if that’s OK!).
TR: Now, you’re an anarchist. What does that mean? What does it mean to believe that there should be no government whatsoever?
SR: Well, the shorthand is—you can buy a button that says this—anarchism is the radical idea that other people aren’t your property. What it means is all human relationships must be peaceful and consensual, which of course leads to—as I see it, at least—respect for persons’ justly acquired possessions (in other words, property rights) as well as the personal integrity of their person, their life, and property. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. So, it just means that the traditional functions that libertarians and classical liberals have been willing to concede to the state—namely, defense against invaders, courts for the peaceful resolution of disputes (like contract disputes), and also prosecution of criminals (people who violate other people’s rights)—those functions can be and over history have been handled in non-forcible ways. In other words, there’s no need to give the state a monopoly on the use of defensive force.
TR: I suppose that the concern that some people have is that if we do not have one overarching entity that is capable of resolving disputes between two parties that otherwise would not come to the table to negotiate—if we did not have one overarching entity that was capable of forcing an aggressor to pay his/her victim some sort of recompense or restitution—that those who are the richest, those with the most guns, would just bully those with fewer weapons into submission. Is that a fear that you have?
SR: Well, it’s a very common concern. I don’t have it. The logic of that, of course, would lead libertarians, or ought to lead libertarians, to call for a world government, because we do already live in an environment of international anarchism. (I was going to say anarchy. Unfortunately, people take that to mean chaos, and of course I don’t mean it that way.) We have international anarchy because there’s no world government. So who settles disputes among governments? Well, governments have lots of bilateral and multilateral agreements for resolving disputes. Most countries are not at war with each other. Most governments are not at war. There are always wars going on, although I think historically we’re at a small number of wars going on relative to earlier periods in the past if you believe Steven Pinker, for example.
SR: So if anarchy can exist at that level, aren’t we now just arguing over the level? Which reminds me of an old joke: we know what you are, we’re just haggling over the price! Old joke. Maybe not in good taste! But to transplant it to this subject: every libertarian I know is an anarchist and is just haggling over what level. Because I don’t know any anarchist who wants to turn the U.N., let’s say, into the world government.
TR: Right. Well, that was a point that I often made to folks at the Cato Institute—I was there this summer—who said that it would simply get too confusing if Sheldon had his own private defense agency and Tommy had his own. And I said, “Well, right now, Indonesia and East Timor, France and Libya, Iraq and Kuwait exist in a state of anarchy with each other. If you think that this is a problem, then you must support a world government.”
But to push back on that line of reasoning: couldn’t some libertarians say, “Well, yes, we don’t have a world government, and we have had chaos! We’ve had Iraq invade Kuwait. We’ve had the United States invade Iraq. We’ve had France invade Libya. We’ve had Indonesia invade East Timor. Wouldn’t it be a good thing if there were some global superstructure that were capable of adjudicating disputes between these two parties?” And again, I certainly recoil at the thought of something like that. But is there a certain logic there that you’re willing to flirt with?
SR: Well, we know enough about states to know what risks we take. States are dangerous. We know that. There’s the famous quotation, of course—that’s wrongly attributed to Washington, because no one’s been able to find anything Washington wrote—but the idea that government is not eloquence, it’s not reason, it’s force. To finish this up—it’s a fearful servant and a monstrous master. That’s not quite right, but that’s the point. So we know for public choice reasons and just knowledge of human nature and how incentives work if you create this monopoly, don’t assume good things are going to come about. Decentralized power has typically been favored by liberals. I’m using “liberals” in the classical liberal sense and libertarians’ thinking. It’s better to fragment power. What would a world government be? It would be the ultimate centralization of power.
I assume it would be a world federalist system of some kind. There is still an organization called the World Federalist Society. They want a world government. But what would stop the sub-governments from fighting with each other? So we know how governments work. We know what the bureaucratic dynamic is. It’s for self-preservation. It’s for mission creep. It’s for expansion. Why would we have confidence in that? If we’re worried about governments, it seems to me what we want is competition, not monopoly. And this goes back to—it happens to be on my tie—the great Gustave de Molinari, who was a friend of Bastiat’s. He hung out with that crowd of European liberals in the 19th century. And he wrote an essay, which is famous among libertarians, called “The Production of Security,” which is available online. And he pointed out that if competition is good, why isn’t it good in the production of security? Why do we accept either communism—as he put it— or democracy in security when we won’t accept it in manufacture of shoes and farming and other stuff like that? So I throw it back on the other side.
The other thing is I wrote an article recently called “Come and See the Anarchy Inherent in the System,” which actually is a play on an old Monty Python and the Holy Grail movie. Great movie, by the way. But there’s an early scene where a man who claims to be king is roughing up a peasant, and the peasant is saying, “Come and see the violence inherent in the system!” I want to make another point. There’s anarchy—even anarchism, in the good sense I mean it—even in the current system, by which I mean there’s a good deal of cooperation that no one will ever enforce by the use of violence. For example, we have a change in presidents coming up. We’re not going to have to force Obama to leave the White House and to let Trump in. That’s not very likely.
What keeps him from doing that? It’s not that he fears the army or the FBI is going to come at gunpoint and remove him. Why does he do that? And why do presidents enforce the laws passed by Congress? Or why do martials enforce orders from judges? It’s not because anybody’s holding a gun to their heads. It’s because they’re embedded in a system of incentives and custom. And so it’s expected that they’ll do that and the cost would be very high to them if they didn’t do it, not in the sense that somebody would point a gun at them and they’d be shot. But again, it’s the incentive system that’s already embedded in the system. So even in a state system, you have this ultimately resting on social consensus.
It’s been pointed out many times by David Hume and others that the number of rulers in any society is very small compared to the number of ruled. So governments ultimately can’t rule by force. They have to rule by people generally supporting. Now, they may support it for bad reasons—they might not even realize that they may have been indoctrinating into supporting it through the government schools and things of that nature—but ultimately the government operates. Force is in the background, of course. But most things go on without the government ever needing to use force. Now, it can.
So anarchism also rests on, I’ll say, social consensus, for lack of a better term. In other words, people expect things. Customs always arise in any society, and they can be, in a way, rigidly enforced by people shunning people that don’t observe basic customs (let’s say respect for other people). And so there are means that don’t involve physical force of enforcing customs, taboos, and—you know—etiquette. Down to the minutiae of etiquette. My point here is that the advocate of limited government can’t throw at the anarchist that “your system ultimately rests on cooperation,” because their system also ultimately rests on cooperation. Because if a significant number of people said, “We refuse to pay taxes,” the government doesn’t have enough guns or enforcers. Because we way outnumber that. So ultimately it’s relying on people cooperating. Why is it that totalitarian government puts so much money into propaganda? Because they can’t rule purely—purely—by force.