Libertarian Anarchy: Against the State (Book Review #1)

Column by Alex R. Knight III

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I can remember my first exposure to David Bergland’s Libertarianism in One Lesson as a freshman in the movement, and how it blew open any number of doors for me at the time. Enter now Gerard Casey’s Libertarian Anarchy: Against the State – a recently published work that I am willing to estimate has already assumed a rightful place in the body of classic anarchist literature, in much the same way that the Tannehill’s The Market for Liberty did way back in 1970.

While Bergland’s book serves mostly as a pedestrian pitch for the Libertarian Party (and I don’t mean to sound overly disparaging; as stated, I too was once an ultra-novice, and am still always learning), and the Tannehills' -- while far more anarchistic and still a vital read – has been rendered now somewhat dated in a few respects, Casey’s exposé spells out the Market Anarchist philosophy, its rationale, and juxtaposition against prevailing statist doctrine in as concise and cogent a manner as any work of its kind to date.

Casey, Associate Professor of Philosophy at University College in Dublin, Ireland (also Adjunct Professor at the Maryvale Institute, UK, and Adjunct Scholar at the Ludwig von Mises Institute, USA, respectively), had this to say of his book in response to a recent e-mail communication I sent to him:

I tried to do at least two things in the book: first, provide an introduction for newcomers to libertarianism; second, provide some material that even, as you put it, 'seasoned libertarians' might find interesting. It's easy to fall to the ground between these two stools.”

Indeed, this is the impression that I come away from Casey’s book with: It is at once accessible and scholarly, with title chapters that themselves strike right at the root of the subject matter at hand, such as “Liberty and Libertarianism,” “Anarchy and Anarchism,” and “Delegitimizing the State” (at once a goal, tactic, and sentiment that will no doubt be familiar to many readers in the “Statement of Purpose” found here). As well, the volume includes sections dedicated to extensive and informative footnotes, a generous bibliography, and a helpful index.

Casey’s essential approach to covering the ground necessary is to initially point out the true nature of government, or “the State” (used in its synonymous sense; see Marc Stevens’s Adventures in Legal Land); that the State is basically a criminal enterprise. Having established that, Casey then defines both anarchy and libertarianism as generally as possible for utilitarian purposes, then with far more circumspection, as a prerequisite for launching further into his treatise.

Interesting in this regard is Casey’s clarification of a paramount incongruence between libertarians and conservatives. In speaking about the subject of achieving moral parity, he remarks at page 55: “One way of understanding the difference between conservatives and libertarians is that conservatives are more concerned about the achievement of the ends than about the process by which the ends are achieved, whereas libertarians are concerned as much with the process as with the ends themselves.” In other words, conservatives, having already arrived at a multiplicity of moral conclusions for themselves, are predisposed towards using coercive force to impose such on others. Libertarians, by contrast, seek ever-evolving experimentation with moral questions, the only precept being, of course, the Non-Aggression Principle (NAP) -- with which every libertarian worthy of the label becomes first and foremost acquainted.

Hereafter, Casey begins to generate a progressively more specific narrowing of all the various commonplace objections to the absence of a State, as it were, and exposing the logical fallacies and misconceptions attributing to them. Concluding his first foray into this exercise, Casey asks the reader, at page 82, to inquire of himself how he might go about creating an institution for protecting life and property in the absence of “the imaginative tyranny of the present”:

“Would you select a small group of people who like ordering other people around, give them all the weapons, take all the weapons from everybody else, make everyone in society pay them no matter how effective or ineffective they were in doing what they were supposed to do and have them answer to the extent that they are answerable, not to you and your fellow members of society but to some other group of individuals who may or, more likely, may not have the same agenda that you do? Or would you do something else?”

Pursuant to this provocative and telling question, in Chapter 5, “Law Without Orders,” Casey outlines the historical emergence of “law,” its main non-State forms (“customary” and “natural”), and examples of anarchic or near-anarchic societies characterized in whole or in part by such forms of arbitration systems, and modes of criminal justice. His choices range from Eskimo culture, to medieval Irish and Icelandic arrangements, to modern-day Somalia (a favorite subject of ridicule for and by statist non-libertarians). Casey is clear in pointing out, however, that these present and historical models are just that: examples of alternative functional societies unlike our own in important respects, and that, with certain demonstrably rational modifications, could plausibly sustain as libertarian anarchic civilizations. Or, to simply put it in the author’s exact words, in relation to the structure of most present Western societies “To show that it wasn’t always like this, that it is not like this everywhere or in every respect even now, and that it doesn’t have to be like this” (p. 115).

Especially rich and satisfying in the following chapter, “Delegitimizing the State,” is Casey’s dissection and subsequent wholesale deconstruction of the myth known as “representative democracy,” in which he concludes at page 128: “In the end, representation is a fig leaf that is insufficient to cover the naked and brutal fact that even in our sophisticated modern states, however elegant the rhetoric and however persuasive the propaganda, some rule and others are ruled.” This is a wholesale refutation of Hannah Fenichel Pitkin’s resoundingly hollow contention (which Casey quotes at page 126) in her 1967 book, The Concept of Democracy, that, “What makes it [representative democracy] representation is not any single action by any one participant, but the over-all structure and functioning of the system, the patterns emerging from the activities of many people.” Pitkin further contends, as quoted by Casey on page 127, that “It is representation if the people (or a constituency) are present in governmental action, even though they do not literally act for themselves.” In light of Casey’s detailed analysis up to this point, Pitkin’s contentions become laughably obvious cases of mere straw-clutching.

Moving on, Casey then examines the political construct of constitutions. Here, he immediately (if predictably) invokes Lysander Spooner, and with sound reason. Having effectively eviscerated the notion of the U.S. Constitution as bearing any contractual legitimacy or otherwise as early as 1870, Casey utilizes Spooner’s indefatigable logic to address the Irish Constitution, as well as all other such similar documental attempts to establish any kind of governmental legitimacy. There is then a most humorous dressing down of Edmund Burke’s Essay, in which Casey demonstrates the absurdity of Burke’s contention that the State is “a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection,” and that “Society is indeed a contract.” Casey also partakes of a brief examination of Hobbes’s Leviathan, concluding at page 145 with the following:

“In summary, if the democratic state is not legitimized by being representative, and if constitutions have no authority, where then does the legitimacy of the modern state reside? I suspect the answer might be that, like the smile of the Cheshire cat, it is suspended in mid-air, devoid of any substantial support.”

This last, of course, conversely and most decidedly, does not describe Casey’s thesis in Libertarian Anarchy. While we work to realize that vision in the physical world, this book most certainly can assist in getting there, both as a recommendation to the uninitiated, and as a splendid addition to the library of libertarianism’s most ardent adherents.

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Alex R. Knight III's picture
Columns on STR: 114

Alex R. Knight III is the author of numerous horror, science-fiction, and fantasy tales.  He has also written and published poetry; non-fiction articles, reviews, and essays for a variety of venues; and is former Communications Director for the Libertarian Party of New Hampshire.  In 1998, he was awarded Activist of the Year for that organization.  He now lives and writes in rural southern Vermont where he holds a B.A. in Literature & Writing from Union Institute & University, and looks forward to living in a governmentless society of liberty.  Alex's Amazon page can be found here, and his work may also be found at both Smashwords and Barnes & Noble.  His Facebook page can be found here.  Receive Alex's occasional Tweets here.


Paul's picture

"In other words, conservatives, having already arrived at a multiplicity of moral conclusions for themselves, are predisposed towards using coercive force to impose such on others."

Well, it depends on how one wants to define a word that already has multiple conflicting definitions, but one might imagine conservatives who aren't interested in coercing others. In other words, conservatism (or any other "ism" except statism) does not necessarily imply coercion.

Of course one might argue that conservatism without coercion is really anarchism. I'd argue instead, it is panarchism. But again, it's all semantics.