Conservative Anarchism - Obvious Contradiction or Obviously Awesome

Few ideas are as mistaken as that belief that conservatism and anarchism are completely incompatible. In fact, both ideas, correctly understood, form a powerful, mutually supportive ideological whole.

Conservatives see tradition as the embodied wisdom of the past. Tradition conveys the practices, beliefs, and rules that worked for those that came before us. Tradition reflects an evolutionary process – those practices that promote success and wellbeing are perpetuated and imitated (even if people do not know why, how, or even that they work) while those that are injurious to their practitioners are selected against and die out. If we recognize the limits of our individual rationality, we will think long and hard before we choose to radically contradict the teachings of those that came before us.

But it is a betrayal of this valuable mechanism to insist in an unthinking conformity to received practices maintained through force. As Burke wrote, “A state without the means of change is without the means of its conservation.” Change, whether to continue improvement or to adapt to changing social environments, must be organic. As in evolution, periodic experimentation, much of which will be pernicious to the social organism, must be tried on a limited scale where the extent of harmful effects will be limited but from which productive discoveries can be imitated and adopted by the rest of the society. Governments, behemoth organizations, and authoritarian systems, insist on universal compliance and top down planning, thereby obstructing Proudhon’s “spontaneous order” from arising. Real traditionalists will be suspicious of any enterprise or organization that promises to heal the sick, care for the elderly, restore public morality, or make the world safe for democracy, instantly and everywhere through force and fiat. Carried to its conclusions, this rejection of compulsion and meddlesome self-appointed authorities amounts to the anarchism of the ruggedly independent pioneers and scofflaw revolutionaries that founded this country.

Many American conservatives honor free enterprise and unencumbered commerce. They recognize the value of individual initiative and competition in the provision of goods and services. At least in word if not deed, conservatives advocate lower taxes, fewer regulations, and less government spending. “Government is not a solution to our problem, government is the problem.” Why not eliminate it? While most anarchists are opposed to “capitalism”, they certainly could not object if the people where you live wanted to set up businesses and exchange. What is more, nothing about conservatism insists that all cooperation must take place on the market - “faith based initiatives” and what not. Anarchy is the real free market.

Many conservatives are Christians or at least appreciate the values of Christian morality. Does anarchism square with Christianity?

The Old Testament contains one of the earliest defenses of a stateless order. The people of Israel come to the prophet Samuel and begged for him to establish a King over them. Up to that point “there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes.” Samuel warned his people of what having a King would entail: He would conscript their sons into his service raising his crops, making his weapons, and fighting his battles. He will make their daughters cook for him and bake for him. He will take their servants and young men to serve him. He will seize their fields, and vineyards, and oliveyards, and give them to his servants. He will tax away a full tenth (horrors!) of their seed, land, sheep. “And ye shall cry out in that day because of your king which ye shall have chosen you and the LORD will not hear you in that day.”

Jesus advocated nonviolence, even pacifism. “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” How can one carry out the functions of a government without force? Even the state’s defenders will admit that the state is institutionalized and legitimized use of violence. The church that Jesus started was highly decentralized and egalitarian. It was a faith for the downtrodden and oppressed common people. Only after the conversion of Emperor Constantine did the church come to be identified with the will of the ruling elite and, in some cases, a religious justification for the exercise of power. Followers of Jesus would be well served to remember his injunction to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's” by throwing Caesar out on his head.

Although the Catholic Church has been historically hostile to anarchism, Catholic intellectuals seeking to develop an economic system consistent with Catholic social teaching they arrived at a suspiciously anarchistic political model called distributism. Thinkers like G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc sought to avoid the concentration of power in the hand of a few bureaucrats (socialism) or in the hands of a few capitalists (capitalism) by distributing the means of production as widely as possible throughout society. Under this system production would be dominated by guilds, cooperatives, small family businesses, and independent artisans. The distributist emphasize the concept of subsidiarity, the principal that no larger unit of social organization should perform a function which can be performed by a smaller unit.

Government and hierarchy are greatest enemies of culture, virtue, and tradition. Stop them now before it is too late.

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Yours is the first post to be "frontpaged" in the history of TDR.

I think any form of anarchism that relies on the market, self-interest, and the profit motive to "keep the peace" is essentially conservative. In such a situation, good law is a private good. I see it as a lot more realistic than the left anarchisms which rely on good law supplied as a public good.

The next to last paragraph seems to describe left anarchism. I don't know how big enterprises would be in a completely free market. There might be economies of scale for certain goods. Alternatively, some currently existing artificial economies of scale thriving via intervention might disappear. But I doubt all economies of scale would disappear. You'd still have some degree of efficiency in large sizes.

Antistatism, Firm Size, and Hierarchy

The definition for anarchism I was using combined anti-statism with a rejection of authoritarian hierarchy (something a lot of ancaps are cool with but that a lot of trad anarchists think of as an integral part of the definition. In my opinion, it's not a big deal since I believe that the first almost of necessity implies the second. I think the abolition of the state the and the true liberalization of the economy would almost of necessity result in an extremely radical reduction in the size of firms, a similar reduction in the concentration and scale of production techniques, and the immense flattening of organizational hierarchy.

Certainly economies of scale exist but I think that government policies greatly expand their size and scope. A vast number of government policies serve to externalize the costs of larger scale production and organization while internalizing the benefits. Public roads encourage centralized production by lowering the cost of shipping long distance. The cost of complying with regulations usually falls more heavily on smaller firms as the cost of compliance comprises a larger share of their total costs. The vast number of technologies and products developed through publicly funded R&D and military R&D tend to be centralizing, capital intensive, and very large - think of the jumbo jet, something that would probably not have come about without military bomber development. The use of public resources to force open foreign markets and secure trading terms favorable to domestic corporations in the name of "free trade" extends the size and favorability of the market for large corporations while making the public foot the bill. The list goes on and on and on.
Of course a critic of this claim can find some government policies like small business subsidies that favor smaller firms sizes but Public Choice tells us that concentrated interests tend to win out over more dispersed interests and large corporations are a very concentrated interest with a lot of bargaining power and money. It seems only natural, and our experiences will tend to support this claim, to believe that big business is the synergistic partner of big government. Destroy the state and I posit that the other pillar of privlege and plunder will come down with it.

I also believe that diseconomies of scale in most markets are massive. Huge information and incentive problems exist. The socialist calculation argument applies not only to socialist central planning but also to central planning within large top-down managed firms.

I take my cues on this from left-libertarians and mutualists like Karl Hess, Kevin Carson, and Roderick Long. Here are some links that can do a much better job of making the argument than I ever could:

State Policies That Promote Corporate Size and Centralization - Kevin Carson
Economic Calculation in the Corporate Commonwealth - Kevin Carson
Studies in Mutualist Political Economy - Kevin Carson

Also check out the books Human Scale by Kirkpatrick Sale and Neighborhood Power by Karl Hess as well as the works of the 19th century individualist anarchists.

-Benjamin Darrington

Firms realize economies of

Firms realize economies of scales at least by avoiding some transaction costs. You mention roads and jumbo jets as favorizing larger firms, but these actually decrease transaction costs so I would think they also tend to decrease the size of firms.

Yes one way in which firms

Yes one way in which firms realize economies of scale is by avoiding transaction costs, for instance, the costs involved in bargaining, contracting, travelling to pick up goods or shop around for prices, and ensuring contractual compliance with other firms. What transaction costs exactly are small firms avoiding through the existence of public roads that big firms aren't as well? I guess free roads make it easier to shop around and move goods between seperate firms, it also seems like maybe larger firms would have more bargaining power and avoid more bargaining costs negotiating with private road companies but it seems like focusing on these transaction cost aspect of roads is missing the big thing: free roads massively reduce the cost of moving inputs and products long distances. A large brewery like Miller that ships its beer all over the country on trucks, benefits much more from subsidized transportation than a small local brewery that only delivers its beer locally.

From a conservative point of

From a conservative point of view, how is the existence of the State not a "wisdom of the past" ? As far as we know states have always existed. You may argue that state appeared through coercion not through the evolutionary weeding out of harmful practices and selection of good traditions, but it was still there. How can a conservative tell between good and bad traditions ? How does he know if the root of the tradition is force and coercion or natural selection. This is very relevant since states and organized religion have been for a long time enforcers of said traditions.

State:Society :: XFL:Football

Actually the state is a pretty new-fangled invention in the big scheme of things. For the vast majority of human history, that is, say prior to adoption of agriculture which only got started 9-10,000 years ago, people lived in small bands. Before that people weren't especially tied to a certain bit of land and a geographical monopoly would have been hard to maintain and pretty pointless. It would have been pretty hard to maintain yourself as a expropriator and exploiter of other people's labor. I imagine a lot of "[face covered in berry juice]Sorry King Zog, I spent all day in the woods and couldn't find anything for you to eat." No liberal paradise but a lack of formal government to a pretty great degree.
For the majority of people living after the advent of agriculture, the state remained non-existent or only an incredibly minor part of the social experience. There seems to be a trend in a bunch of peoples for "mission creep" within the people responsible for military leadership, priestly duties, and civic leadership to usurp more and more authority as time went on.
Within our own western tradition, the state still took a while to get its crap together. For instance, chiefs and kings in the Saxon tribes that conquered Britain, like their other Germanic cousins on the continent, were only non-hereditary military leaders, who depended on reciprocal, consensual relationships with the people who lead and were only in charge during war. Slowly they solidified and expanded their power but it took a long, long time and was definitely at odds with tradition. All it takes is a look at our anglo-american legal tradition to still pick out a lot of vestigial characteristics of our anarcho-legal heritage. Just one example, the legal fiction of having an individual, a public prosecutor, bring people to court for criminal violations against the state.
The Renaissance, no matter how great the art was, was a disaster in politics. Autocratic rule was the new, hip, thing and began to usurp the highly decentralized, largely contractually based, feudal system. Read Hoppe or Proudhon for descriptions of the semi-anarchic nature of European feudalism. The modern nation state, in the form we know and love today, only started to get underway in Europe in the 15th century.
No doubt about it, the state is a fairly recent historical event. What's more, the historical record is alway biased in favor of state systems because they're the ones that keep records and have the power to erect enduring monuments, etc. If any sort of state is justified on conservative grounds by historical precedent it would have to be some sort of non-territorial lineage based system or a patchwork of tiny, tiny, minimal principalities, or god-king emperors - definately not continent spanning democracies.

I think you rely to much on

I think you rely to much on selection bias to make your point. What about pharaonic Egypt, or roman Rome? Sure the nation state we have now is different from the states of the past, but a geographical monopoly of law is nothing new.

Hoppe may speak highly of European feudalism but I think that's because he fails to understand the legal nature of land occupation which he mistakes as ownership. This is a key element in Hoppe's rejection of immigration as he implicitely grant the State the right to keep people off the roads. Rothbard does understand the nature of land monopoly as forceful occupation - not ownership - of land. Check Ethics of Liberty : Property and Criminality.

You don't like State as a wisdom of the past? What about slavery? Isn't slavery a precious wisdom of the past?

Past institutions are not necesseraly the result of a natural order, there are the result of human interactions, including coercion.

I think you are relying on

I think you are relying on selection bias by cherry picking prominent statist examples. It's easy to do because historical evidence and the accounts of historians are extremely biased in favor of governments. Anarchic peoples don't spend a lot of time writting down how wonderful King X is and what armies he fought and what foreign emisaries he met with, nor do they have the coercive organizational structure to conscript labor and resources and organize people to build pyramids, monuments, and palaces. Even with your Roman example I think you miss the point, the early republic is a fairly good argument against anything like a modern state. Think about it, it was a system of highly divided powers and civic participation RULING AN AREA LESS THAN THE SIZE OF A MODERN CITY. Conservative romans certainly looked back wistfully to the republican era during the times of the empire, and for good reason.

Feudalism was no anarchy. Of course, the military aristocrats who extracted payment from the productive classes never legitimately owned the land. Even this system an echo and a usurpation of an earlier, more anarchic, tradition. Nevertheless, it was highly decentralized. Certainly it didn't look like what we call a state.

Obviously, there are conservatives running around everywhere today that believe in slavery as well as trial by ordeal, and witch burning as inspired bits of our heritage. I think the traditionalism you are attacking here is a strawman. It's one thing to support more or less gradual organic change and the elimination of coerced restriction on the functioning of the evolutionary tradition mechanism and another to advocate overthrowing all inherited values and order in a purifying bonfire of revolution which is what clowns like the neocons and technocratic liberals advocate. Do you think it was inconsistant for Edmund Burke to support the American Revolution but oppose the French one?

I myself am not a conservative. I just think there is a very defensible traditionalist position that supports and is itself bolstered by radical antistatism and opposition to extremes of hierarchy.

Waiting for the [r]Evolution

"It's one thing to support more or less gradual organic change and the elimination of coerced restriction on the functioning of the evolutionary tradition mechanism and another to advocate <b>overthrowing all inherited values and order in a purifying bonfire of revolution</b> which is what clowns like the neocons and technocratic liberals advocate."

This statement is hilarious coming from an anarchist advocate.  Especially the bolded part.   What, so anarchists are the ones relying on gradual evolutionary processes to move our government towards anarchy?

I'm more on Arthur's side of this argument.   I don't pine for the days of tribalism.  I'm not particularly fond of living with my close relatives in clans.  Half of them are baptists and I'm an atheist.  Screw that.

Hum, actually I am on the

Hum, actually I am on the side of gradual evolution towards anarchy.

(Although if I could have anarchy at the push of a button I'd push it)

Long wait

Well the way things look that's going to be a long time, if never. Been my experience that ideologies that believe the state is just going to whither away end up will followers who act to rush the process.  With the resulting casualties.

The state will fall anyway

Individual states have a habit of ending with a bang, not a whimper. So if you mean individual states, at some point our individual state will likely implode. We might be invaded by some foreign government, or we might break apart as we almost did in the Civil War, or we might have a bloody revolution. The state will likely not go quietly. And in all likelihood it will have nothing in particular to do with anarchists.

Maybe anarchists should concentrate on preserving anarchy when it exists. And (more difficult) on converting chaos to anarchy.

Anarchies are also established where there is nothing, or relatively nothing, before (Iceland, the "Wild West"). But as for the state gently fading away, I can't think of examples.

True Enough It Will Eventually Fall

Personally I think the U.S. was about a close to a freak accident as you can
get. The ideas grounding rights were evolutionary while the actual
establishment revolutionary. So I view the issue of whether some new order
can work (and the ideas behind it worked out) vs. whether it can, arise as two
different issues.

The revolution in France was supposedly grounded in the
same ideas and it didn't work out so well. I think the truth was that here the
ideas were more organically accepted and more widespread, whereas there it was
more imitative and the revolution more imposed. It really stinks when you have to pull in the manpower for the revolution from a set of resources that have other motives and beliefs.

So any upheaval that is going to establish this new anarchist order will have to by coincidence occur exactly as sentiment runs an understanding that anarchy is the way to go, and anarchistic style institutions are already in place. I think this requires a great deal of restraint on the part of people who get into positions of power in these institutions outside the realm of government. Problem is that I just don't see that happening. People attracted to corporate power are not any less corruptible than those in government.

Even when it does get off on the right foot as in America the natural
tendency has been to move away from the original goals and ideas. We've certainly experienced that.

I also think that the ideas that need to be accepted for anarchy to work run counter to peoples inbred intuitions. We evolved where one needed to put ones close genetic and cultural ties first. So the order of interest was me, family, extended family, tribe, clan, subculture, and culture. This means that people feel a natural tie to the kind of ideas that support what are really collectivist values.

The human mind naturally anthropomorphizes the universe and political institutions. It's natural to use our prewired understanding of our fellow men to explain the universe and government. Thus we see our universe as being created by a loving father figure and likewise our government in the same light. With it goes our natural tendency to side with family and clan over outsiders even in the case when the outsider is right. Also our tendency to want to collectivize resources and share them within the family group seems to run counter to anarchy.

I don't think we are on the whole blank slates that can be filled with the needed values easily. That is the values need for anarchism. This I am less sure of than the other stuff. Even if we are not blank slates overall the tendency to take on the values I'm talking about may be flexible enough to submerge collectivist belief. I'm not even sure what the correct set of values is.

Furthermore, I don't see how the needed values can be uniformly incalculated in each new generation. I guess everyone could send their kids voluntarily to the same private educational instution, or collection of institutions that share these same values. I'm not sure however how that works out in principle, with open borders and foreign money. How does one control oil money being used to establish religious schools that teach values that run contrary to those needed?

I'm not saying it can't happen and I'm not saying the ideas and institutions can't be fleshed out. I am saying I don't see it happening anytime soon, and if it does happen it's going to be a chance event, which like some freak wave be soon to subside back to the former level.

Asymptotic Anarchist

I'm tinkering with the idea of calling myself an "asymptotic anarchist". In other words, the less government uses institutionalized force and the more civic society solves problems through the actions of willing individuals, the better. But I am too wary of unintended consequences to employ violence to reach that state.

As you allude to in your sixth paragraph, Brian (The human mind naturally anthropomorphizes...), I think human psychology is the primary force pushing us to large government solutions. We wish for the world to be different, and are willing to use force to achieve it. And force can work, particularly in the short term. The libertarian attempts to restrict the use of force to defense only, and to grant all other individuals an equal right to employ force. But this is no easy feat, and even between people with the best of intentions, disagreements can arise.

I believe in spite of faulty psychology, we still do make progress toward a free society. I think this is because when you sum up all human desires and require them to be met within the bounds of reality, a free society works best. The broader our experience (either direct or vicarious), the more we realize that freedom is a winning strategy and employ it.

Conservative Revolution

"This statement is hilarious coming from an anarchist advocate.
Especially the bolded part. What, so anarchists are the ones relying
on gradual evolutionary processes to move our government towards

Nah, I think you can have a conservative revolution. Instead of imposing a new order (even a stateless one) from scratch, I would support doing as much as possible to build anarchic institutions within the old society and letting some statist heads roll in defense of organic evolutionary systems when the situation was ripe for it. After the fall of the state I would support filling the gaps with the emergent civil society institutions and traditions that already exist and have proved themselves capable of maintaining social order: getting the Mormon Church, the Bloods, Boy Scouts of America, Community Watch programs, the Shriners, etc. to sign on to some sort of reciprocal non-agression and property respecting treaty system or the like. I really think if something like this had happened after the American Revolution things would have worked a lot better.


Speaking for myself...

...and probably a few others on this blog, I'm all about the Evolution. Revolution sucks.

On Coercive Traditions

On coercive traditions:

Coerced traditions may be valuable as well. The fact that something was backed up with some degree of force only raises a barrier to change but this only slows down the evolutionary process and impedes the discovery of alternatives. All it takes is for progress to take hold in one place, say the Dutch getting rich by tolerating jews and free thinkers, to eventually spread it everywhere. Pressure also comes from outside, if people insist on perpetuating dumb traditions in their society via force, they are ripe for getting their asses kicked by other societies with a superior set of meme - not saying that is ethical necessarily, just that it happens.

Any traditionalist has to examine a tradition for the degree to which it was shaped by force or evolutionary preference. I think this is consistant with a skeptical view of the omnipotence of human rationality. Would a consistent Russian conservative in 1980s USSR have to defend the Soviet Union because "If it was good enough for my grandpa, it's good enough for me." Of course not. Should a modern day American abandon monogamy because we've had marriage licensing laws for a while and church sanctions against polygamy for much longer? I think he would recognize the prevelance of the institution in his tradition and its long history and stick to it himself but should support efforts to free up experimentation so other saps can make the potentially costly experiments with alternative arrangements.

Bare conservatism

From a conservative point of view, how is the existence of the State not a "wisdom of the past"?

I think it is possible (maybe not easy, but possible) to distinguish between good traditions and bad traditions, while still valuing the good traditions. Let me step aside from culture to a biological analog. Cultural traditions, since they reproduce (through learning) and evolve, can be seen as analogous to biological organisms, which reproduce and evolve. But there is a difference between processes that we approve of and processes that we do not approve of. We approve of healthy human bodies and disapprove of organisms such as parasitic bacteria and quasi-organisms such as viruses that feed off of the human body in a way that makes it sick. Furthermore, we do not approve of all repeatedly seen native bodily processes but can distinguish heart disease (bad) from a healthy heart (good) even though both are repeatedly seen over time. But at the same time we do approve of the healthy human body itself and of symbiotic organisms, and these both are ancient.

Moving back to tradition, we can ask the question, cui bono. If a tradition or seeming tradition benefits some people while harming others, then the tradition is likely to be parasitic (like illness-causing bacteria and viruses). Surely it is blatantly obvious that slavery is parasitism. It could be a million-year-old tradition and it would still be parasitic. Analogously, nature's parasites have been doing their stuff for many millions of years and they could go on for billions more and it would still be parasitism. Age does not wipe that away.

Alternatively, it might benefit no one. Some recurring social phenomenon may benefit no one while nevertheless recurring. Analogous to heart disease, which harms the human while not being caused by any parasite. I can't think of any analogs off the top of my head.

Another, related, question that we can ask is, what is sustaining the tradition? Slavery is sustained by an extreme imbalance of power between the slave and the slave-owner. Obviously, this analysis is easily abused in the wrong hands (think Marxist class analysis) but I would argue that Marxism is quite simply plausible-but-erroneous, and therefore is not a genuine contradiction to the idea that one could, in certain cases, correctly identify parasitism or social disease. The possibility of misdiagnosis does not disprove the possibility of correct diagnosis. Similarly, the fact that some slave owners argued that slaves benefit from being slaves does not mean that "cui bono" is a bad approach, it only means that some slave owners are prone to self-deception. Again, the possibility of self-deception should not prevent us from trying to get at the truth. We deceived ourselves for millenia on all manner of things but we've also made some progress.

I'm just making a general argument that we can at the same time value tradition, while also distinguishing good traditions from bad ones and also possibly identifying quasi-traditions that don't really help any one but are unfortunate side-effects (like heart disease is an unfortunate side-effect of bodily processes).


You are advocating the use

You are advocating the use of reason and ethics. Of course you can consciensiously decide to rely on tradition because you think you are more likely to make judgement mistake than the tradition to be wrong but tradition becomes merely a handy tool. Is that still conservatism? To me conservatism embodies a strong bias towards tradition, a bias stronger than the natural rational incentive to look at past wisdom.

If you define it as bias

To me conservatism embodies a strong bias towards tradition, a bias
stronger than the natural rational incentive to look at past wisdom.

I think the word "conservative" has wider uses than this. There is, I would argue, a widespread tendency to give tradition short shrift. Half the world was engulfed in a supposedly scientific social re-engineering project (I mean communism) that among its other faults had the fault that it was much too ready to reject traditions. This tendency expressed itself in the destruction of the traditional economy (e.g., collectivization of agriculture) and also in the destruction of the "higher" reaches of culture (e.g. the Chinese cultural revolution, which laid waste to Chinese intellectual life and destroyed priceless and irreplaceable cultural treasures). In this context, a conservative tendency does not go beyond rationality but gets back closer to correct rationality. Marxism was supposedly "rational", but it was "rational" only in the sense that certain mental disorders are characterized by a kind of "hyper-rationality", a mental wheel-spinning that has lost contact with the ground.

What counts as a conservative, that is what actually gets labelled "conservative", I think, is relative rather than absolute. A "conservative" is someone who is more conservative than some typical specimen. That might be good or it might be bad, it might be less sane or it might be more sane, depending on the typical specimen.

agree, except...

I couldn't agree more with your observations, in general. That is one of the problems I have had with Russell Kirk: while I love his conservatism, I'm wonder whether he feels it is the duty of the state to be the conservator.

Although I do disagree with the necessity of established secular authority, I do believe in religious authority, specifically the Catholic Church.

And I think you're wrong about the early church being "egalitarian." Since the beginning there have been popes, bishops, and priests; St. Paul references them extensively in his letters. Christ Himself calls dubs Simon Peter the "rock" on which He shall build his church; i.e., he made one man the rock, and he gave the "keys" to one man, and that man became pope, head of the household, "Papa"--viz., "Dad".

My view of anarchism, however, is purely theoretical, because in my vision the only way it would work is if the entire world were Catholic.

By the way, conservatism proper is not an ideology. Tradition is based on experience, not on ideas.