What It Feels Like to Be an Anarcholibertarian


Column by Don Stacy.

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One of my favorite libertarian articles is a January 2009 blog post by Professor John Hasnas entitled "What It Feels Like To Be a Libertarian." Hasnas is an Associate Professor of Business at Georgetown's McDonough School of Business, a visiting Associate Professor of Law at Georgetown University Law Center, and Director of the Georgetown Institute for the Study of Market and Ethics. His essay has nothing to do with libertarian bioethics, my usual topic of choice, but the theme he considers has been so rarely addressed that I thought I should bring his tract to the attention of the libertarian community.

In this post, Professor Hasnas compares the internal life of the libertarian to the internal life of Cassandra, the Greek mythological heroine. To refresh the reader's memory, Cassandra was the most beautiful daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy. Apollo, the sun god, offered Cassandra the gift of prophecy in exchange for her love. Cassandra accepted the proposal, but then betrayed Apollo by refusing his advances after she had already received the prophetic gift. Apollo retaliated by cursing Cassandra, proclaiming that her prophecies would be accurate but disbelieved by all.

Professor Hasnas speculates when he relates the inner life of the libertarian to the inner life of Cassandra, for Greek mythology does not explicate what it feels like to be Cassandra. But the generic comparison is undeniably reasonable, for we libertarians predict with uncanny accuracy the disastrous consequences of aggression, yet no one believes us. Hasnas notes that libertarians are "ridiculed, derided, and shunned" and "subject to unending scorn and derision despite being inevitably proven correct by events." Cassandra’s contemporaries responded to her in a similarly shameful manner, as evidenced by Clytemnestra’s verbal barrage prior to exiting the stage in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon:

‘Fore God, she is mad, and heareth but her own
Folly! A slave, her city all o’erthrown,
She needs must chafe her bridle, till this fret
Be foamed away in blood and bitter sweat.
I waste no more speech, thus to be defied.

How does constant mockery make us libertarians feel? Professor Hasnas, who is neither a psychologist nor a psychiatrist, doesn’t provide a comprehensive analysis of the internal life of the libertarian. However, he does assert that being a libertarian "feels bad" and "means living with an almost unendurable level of frustration." To supplement the author’s hypothesis, I suggest the following negative emotions are also common libertarian internal states: anger, annoyance, contempt, disgust, irritation, anxiety, embarrassment, fear, helplessness, powerlessness, worry, doubt, envy, guilt, shame, despair, disappointment, hurt, sadness, and shock. The key for the libertarian is to not incorporate any of these negative emotions into her personal identity, for such assimilation leads to a hostile “personal style”—to borrow a phrase from Gary Chartier, Professor of Law and Business Ethics at La Sierra University—that has approximately zero chance of influencing a statist to adopt the libertarian philosophy.

Is Professor Hasnas correct that libertarians feel “bad” and experience “an almost unendurable level of frustration”? Maybe. I think it depends on the worldview of the libertarian.

Libertarians can broadly be divided into the two following subgroups: optimists and pessimists. Optimistic libertarians generally believe the State can be changed from within, liberty can be achieved in our lifetime, and non-libertarians can be easily persuaded of the merits of liberty if they are only exposed to the basic libertarian arguments. In contrast, pessimistic libertarians generally believe the State cannot be changed from within, liberty cannot be achieved in our lifetime, and non-libertarians are rarely persuaded of the merits of liberty even when they are exposed to the basic libertarian arguments.

It is simple to intuit from this description that the two libertarian groups normally experience different levels of frustration. Optimistic libertarians generally experience a higher level of frustration because their worldview is idealistic and empirically false. Pessimistic libertarians generally experience a lower level of frustration because their worldview is realistic and empirically true.

I once was an optimistic libertarian and EXTREMELY frustrated. However, reality eventually escorted me to the pessimistic camp, at which time my frustration level minimized and I became much more productive as an anarcholibertarian activist. I recommend a similar conversion for all optimistic libertarians.

Your rating: None Average: 9.8 (4 votes)
Don Stacy's picture
Columns on STR: 4

Don Stacy is a 41 yo American libertarian writer and physician. 


Alex R. Knight III's picture

A great essay Don, and one that incorporates what I think is so far one of the unsung all-time classic libertarian essays.  Hasnas nails it.
But I have to disagree with you on a finer point, and that is how you define the criteria of libertarian optimists and pessimists: I don't believe that a libertarian optimist needs to still believe in the State as a valid vehicle.  I certainly don't, and at least most of the time consider myself one of the optimists.  However, I vacillate on occasion to the pessimistic arena.  Depends on what kind of day I'm having.  :-)
Again, great one!

KenK's picture

Odd thing about people who openly announce their being an anarchist. They tend to be tenured college faculty members or else socially and economically marginalised sorts who barely get by. Both sorts are mainly dismissed as cranks.

Jim Davies's picture

Your closing recommendation, Don, is hereby emphatically rejected.
I'm also very sorry to read that in your opinion the Libertarian "worldview is idealistic and empirically false." I'd have thought that almost everything we read on STR powerfully demonstrates the contrary, and that in any case for someone to hold that opinion and yet to call himself a Libertarian is contradictory on its face.

Mark Davis's picture

Hasnas makes a good point that I can relate to and this is a pertinent subject to consider; I enjoyed reading it even though it came off as a bit negative.  I consider this proposition a false dilemma because I'm optimistic about the long run and pessimistic about the short term.  Enjoy life and the quest for truth will be it's own reward.  My happiness isn't based on what others do, say, think or understand, but on what I do, say, think and understand.  Nothing worthwhile is easy to do.

Thunderbolt's picture

This is an important issue. I have identified groups that have radically different views. I want to believe that Jim Davies has the right approach: education plus time, with one on one replication. Opposing him are television and public school. Jim Bell thinks that anonymous warfare via Assassination Politics, will get the job done, essentially shifting the fear from the enslaved serfs to the ruling elite. Doug Casey thinks voting with your feet is the only rational recourse to oppression, and that history demonstrates that trying to change things from within a police state is a waste of time, and may well result in your death or imprisonment. Andrew Napolitano says it is very dangerous to be right when your government is wrong.
A possible fourth view might be that of the renegade anarchist, who refuses to pay taxes, refuses to leave, and makes his money off the grid, perhaps using crypto-currencies and encrypted communication, or simply refuses to make more than a subsistence income, well below taxable levels. Here, I think of the genius David B. King, living in Wyoming in his school bus with his several cats.

Jim Davies's picture

T-bolt, that's very profound. I don't recall seeing those four approaches compared before, side by side.
Tempting though it is, Bell's method uses violence, the enemy's weapon, and fails (if I understand it correctly) to end the state altogether anyway; it would continue to exist but to a less objectionable degree.
Casey's is fine in the short term, but again fails to end the state; it says to go where government ain't, but unfortunately that leaves government free to eliminate those safe havens. It's the shrinking sandbar problem I addressed in  The Power of One.
David King's is admirable too, for people willing to live that far under the radar - but it's hardly freedom, to do as one pleases with one's own life. Again, it fails to terminate the state.
So Casey's and King's ways may deliver short-term relief for the practitioner but do nothing to abolish government, while Bell's requires morally tainted methods and reduces its monstrous power only partly.
Guess which that leaves :-)

Bob Robertson's picture

With the SCOTUS ruling recently that finally nullifies the 5th Amendment, falling with the rest to the expedience of "better a hundred innocent men be imprisoned than one guilty man go free", I think it's desperately important to be thinking about the real hazards involved with revolution.

Violent revolution is being presented on all sides -by- the state as the only remedy to an over-arching state. The two wars of secession, 1775 and 1861, are lynch-pins in the public schools, always showing that government won. Yet both only made the state more powerful.

The alternative to education and time is action. The militarization of the "civilian" police is a clear indication of what the state WANTS. The state thrives on conflict, and is endangered by those who ignore it.

Every time I hear people talk about a Constitutional Convention, I shudder, imagining the kind of crap that would come out of such an event now. In 1787, the Convention created a yet more powerful central govt, and today the result would be exactly the same.

In times of crisis, a huge portion of the population cries out for someone to save them, and they will cede "minor" rights every time. Only through relentless, peaceful effort can the idea that there are no "minor" rights be spread far enough, wide enough, deeply enough, to thwart Leviathan.

Paul's picture

Well, revolution (or secession, or other variations) will come whether we like it or not. It seems to be part of the human condition.

I don't think the state favors any of these. The American Revolution is presented as something that happened once and for all, never to be needed again.

The state thrives on conflict, true, but not on conflict uncontrolled by the state. Divide and conquer is their tactic, but the last thing they want is revolution. They want low level conflict so they can step in and "fix" things (even if they were the cause of the problem in the first place - government being a disease masquerading as its own cure). They have to justify their own existence.

"Yet both only made the state more powerful."

No. The coup of 1787 did that; not the revolution of 1775.

Paul's picture

All these approaches have validity, and ought to be adopted according to one's personal preferences. They all contribute to the push in the correct direction.

Samarami's picture

Don, I gave your piece a strong rating of 9. I've never believed in a 100% essay, and STR has no "9.5" or "9.9". Few of us or our works are perfect -- with the possible exception of thee and me. And I'm not that certain about thee, thus the "9".

Seriously, I see what you were doing, and you did it artfully -- rather of a flip-flopping of the way ideals can be construed. However, I can't endorse the way you've grouped libertarians who have this or that opinion concerning that lifeless abstraction called "the state" as optimist and pessimist. For years, even prior to my admitting and accepting the label "libertarian", I felt always the outsider looking in. Still do among many (most) family, neighbors, friends and associates. I could never uncover what all the internal discomfort was about until I began to read Harry Browne, Robert Ringer, and the like. Including Jim Davies in later years.

Always the optimist, however, I came to enjoy being the interloper -- and often here and on other libertarian forums I'll rib the serious-minded. Sometimes I catch flak in the process.

And no, I have no illusion "the state" has any avenue of being changed from within. "It" is the naturally burgeoning end result of ancient subjugators. Politicians are factotum remnants of the conquering khans -- psychopathic geniuses in the art of obfuscation and obscuring, making it appear to those who are being robbed that they are actually being "served".

Some -- precious few, I'm afraid -- can in time be convinced to "...come out of her..." as you and I have. I expect no mass exodus in my lifetime. They ain't enough Ron Paul's in Texas to create a silk purse out of a sow's ear -- and that's what you're up against trying to "...change the state from within...". For the better, that is -- perpetrators of "the-drug-war" have done an excellent job changing it for the worse, as have those who put on the "911" show.

It is quite obvious that all of what we call "government" is set to implode economically. I hope to see that while I'm yet alive and cognizant. With the influx of free and open information brought about by the internet there may come a condition much like Somalia -- with perhaps enough core of freedom-loving individuals to eschew and throw off "transitional" central political entities that are certain to try to raise their ugly heads.

Even in jest, I'll tend to avoid "pessimism" to describe my reason for doing or refraining from doing or thinking a thing. I wholeheartedly agree, contrary to the opinion of our friend, Mr. Davies (whom I've often razzed as a "frontal attack man"), that you and I "...became much more productive as an anarcholibertarian activist(s)..." I declared myself a sovereign state in part as an alternative to tilting at windmills.

In the process of my becoming sovereign some headway has come about -- in some manner it is perhaps as a direct result of my "activism"; but in another it may be more subtle. I'll never know for sure. I've attempted to encourage and inspire those around me to see reality for what it is. Gently.

Most (18 out of 25 total) of my younger grandchildren are in homeschool programs. To what extent that is my doing I do not know -- nor for the several other young families I've "preached homeschooling" to.

I've not been successful in pushing whatever my rendition of "tolfa" might be in that sense; but progress has been made in my own family and environ, including cyber-friends at STR. Again, gently.

I know better than to try, for instance, to convince my eldest daughter, who is about to retire from a lucrative job as vice-department head of a typically large state agency, that she should quit and "...seek honest work" (at probably not more than about 20% of what she receives now in salary). But I do not back away from expressing my understanding of monopoly government as inept, inefficient agencies of coercion.

I detect a slight rolling of eyes as she blandly agrees (not to disagree) with me.

This is a fun time to be alive. There is no room for pessimism.


Paul's picture

While I have to question the choice of the terms "optimistic" and "pessimistic" libertarians, I don't think it is too controversial that what Don defines as the "optimistic libertarian" view - essentially the Libertarian Party I suppose - is pretty much a dead end. Yet even that I can see a use for - not in actually accomplishing something externally, but as a probably necessary step to "enlightenment" internally. You have to try and fail at it, to move on; most of us do anyway.

I don't see myself either as an "optimistic libertarian" or a "pessimistic libertarian", using Don's terms. Instead, I'm more toward acceptance. Working in the system is a joke, but giving up is not optimal either.

I accept that some people will never give up their belief in the government religion for example, but I no longer require them to do so for me to be happy. I shoot for a much closer and easier target: to be left alone, to be tolerated. That is what I believe people generally *are* capable of. Why? Because they have changed as significantly in the past. There are no more religious wars any more (except for the government religion). Slavery is no longer considered a norm (except a bastardized version, "wage slavery"). And so forth...

Commom Sense's picture

That pretty much sounds like Common Sense. You have to pick your battles and it appears as if many have chosen a particular course of action. It sounds like fence splitting to me, but that is neither here nor there, just a matter of natural right to select. I believe there is a potential--mind me now "potential" to work from the inside-out. Exactly how that would happen I cannot say. Exactly what Russian leaders said it I cannot recall but he said something like "America is like an apple on a tree. It will ripen until it is time to fall. Given all of the circumstances of yesterday, today and tomorrow it appears as if America must be getting rather ripe.
The article and comments have been wonderful points and counter-points to an idea who's time has evolved into what next.
Mark Davies seems to have a solid grasp on the situation and I appreciate Sam's perspectives and efforts. One article here suggested some alternative methods of action which I thought was exactly the correct prescription for what ails those affiliated herein. Action certainly speaks louder than words. I think the membership here should invest efforts into brain-storming ideas of action which individuals could implement.