by Roy A. Childs, Jr.
(Originally published in Liberty Against Power: Essays by Roy. Childs,
edited by Joan Kennedy Taylor; 1994)
(First published on TDO November 13, 1999)
Editor's Note by Joan Kennedy Taylor: During the early 1980s, Roy Childs
mentioned to some of his friends that he had changed his mind about
anarchism, and intended someday to write about the subject at length;
exactly when and why this change occurred is unclear. He said to me once
that the hostage crisis in Iran was a turning point for him, because it
became obvious that when the Iranian students took the hostages, because
of the de facto anarchy in that country there was no one with whom to
negotiate for their release; but he didn't argue the point further. Many
limited government libertarians, including myself, feel that their
arguments were decisive in changing his mind, but we will never know.
When Laissez Faire Books announced in 1988 that Childs would edit The
Libertarian newsletter for them, he decided to put his new views on
anarchism in the first issue, but neither the article nor the first
issue was ever completed-this fragment (which was found in his papers
after his death) is as far as he got. What his argument would have been,
we will unfortunately never know, but because his views in defense of
anarchism have been so influential, it seems only fair to include this
tantalizing beginning here.
Many years ago I wrote a little essay published as "Objectivism and the
State: An Open Letter to Ayn Rand," which caused quite a stir. At the
time, I was a young libertarian who had become converted to the position
I called "free market anarchism," and it was my intention to convert
Rand to that position; I knew that, through her, her followers would be
reached as well.
Things did not exactly work out as planned. In place of the astonished
but eager acceptance of my argument-and there was some minor hope on my
part for that result-I received notice in my mailbox of the cancellation
of my subscription to Ayn Rand's magazine,
Objectivist. I took my original letter to Ayn Rand and circulated it to
a handful of friends and acquaintances, and after making a few minor
line changes, published it in a magazine of small circulation.
The reaction astonished me because I received nearly as many letters in
response to my argument as the magazine had subscribers. Two letters
were favorable, while about two hundred were not. Over the course of the
next few years, the position of free market anarchism found more and
more acceptance in the libertarian movement, and its enthusiasts easily
gave the advocates of limited government a run for their money. I was
not the first to advocate free market anarchism, but for a while, at
least, I found myself one of its most vocal advocates, writing letters,
engaging in public debates, publishing articles ("Anarchism and
Justice," a multi-part series, appeared in the The Individualist; "The
Epistemological Basis for Anarchism," a privately-published essay, was
circulated in the thousands; there were others), making speeches, and
always returning to print to refute new attempts to provide a
justification for limited government.
My last essay on the subject was published as a critique of Robert
Anarchy, State and Utopia, published more than ten years ago as "The
Invisible Hand Strikes Back," in the Journal of Libertarian Studies.
I have said that I was not the originator of free market anarchism, and
that is indeed true. Murray Rothbard thinks that the original
"anarcho-capitalist" was probably Gustav de Molinari, the nineteenth
century Belgian economist and follower of the great French libertarian,
Frederic Bastiat. At the time I began writing about anarchism, I knew
nothing about Molinari. My own mentors were Robert LeFevre, whose
doctrine of "autarchy" or "self-rule" caught my fancy as a teenager;
and, later, the thinking done by such figures as Morris and Linda
Tannehill, authors of the recently-reprinted work
Market for Liberty, and Murray Rothbard, particularly through my
acquaintance with one of his associates, the late Wilson Clark.
Change of heart
Nevertheless, I was a tireless propagandist for anarchism, and probably
convinced as many people of the legitimacy of the position as anyone
else at that time. This was, no doubt, due to the fact that my argument
was cast in the form of critiques of the most influential libertarian
theorist of the time, Ayn Rand. Her followers were far more numerous
than those of any other figure. Her influence was so vast that it easily
dwarfed that of anyone else, with the possible exception of Ludwig von
Mises, who pretty much stuck to economics and broader issues in the
Since writing my critique of Nozick, which had a very favorable
reception, I have been asked to expand on some of my views in this area.
How would anarchism work? What were my current views on the subject? I
regularly ducked the first issue, and anyone familiar with my writings
on the subject may notice that I have never written anything about how
free market anarchism would work; my published views have been limited
to knocking down justifications for government. I ducked the second
issue as long as I could, for a very good reason: I had changed my mind,
and was not ready to argue my new case.
But I knew that sooner or later I would return to the subject of
anarchism. That is the purpose of this essay: to refute myself as well
as other anarchists. Why? Because, to paraphrase my open letter to Ayn
Rand, I was wrong. I now regard anarchism as incoherent and even
dangerous to the libertarian movement.
It will be said that the only issue is the truth or falsity of an idea,
and that calling an idea "dangerous" is itself somewhat a "dangerous"
mode of thought. But it is my conviction that anarchism functions in the
libertarian movement precisely as does Marxism in the international
socialist movement: as an incoherent and therefore unreachable goal that
inevitably corrupts any attempted strategy to achieve it. I will argue
that, as in the case of advocates of a Marxist utopia, libertarians
attempting to implement anarchism would find themselves invariably
moving in practice toward something very different; something,
furthermore, that they never intended.
Fantasy masquerading as ideology
My purpose, then, is twofold: to refute anarchism as a doctrine, to
expose it as a fantasy masquerading as an ideology, and to show how in
fact it has led too many libertarians away from reality, and, indeed,
set them on a collision course with it.
Too often in social or political thinking the unreflective acceptance of
an incoherent ideal has led to trouble. We need only look at the often
pernicious effects of such ideals as "equality" or "planning" to see how
something apparently innocent can lead otherwise well-meaning people
into the acceptance of the most absurd proposals and realities
imaginable. And sometimes, of course, the proposals and realities have
not been merely absurd, but criminal. What crimes have not been
committed in the name of equality? And what amount of arbitrary state
power has not been sanctioned in the name of state planning of the
But, it will be answered, we have never seen a full-fledged attempt to
achieve anarcho-capitalism in the modern world. How can the things be
compared? We simply lack the experience that we do in the case of ideals
like equality and planning.
True enough, but an incoherent goal pursued with enough diligence and
success must always produce unexpected and even shocking outcomes.
Equality and planning were incoherent goals. So too, I will argue, is
anarcho-capitalism. It has become a standard libertarian argument that
the malicious implications of equality and planning are indeed implicit
in any sustained, rational analysis of the actual meanings of the
concepts involved. If we look at what is involved in the ideal of
equality, we must be able to discern that it is either perniciously
arbitrary (why only equality of wealth? what would "equality of
opportunity" or "equality of outcomes" actually entail?) or that it can
only be achieved by the most extreme and unacceptable means. And if we
examine the notion of "comprehensive planning of the economy," we find
similar questions and implications. We would find that it would be
necessary to accept not only a vast concentration of power in the hands
of the state, but also a destruction of wealth on such a large scale as
to render whole populations destitute.
Some people might not shrink from accepting such consequences, but they
would probably be in the minority, which is where psychopaths properly
Roy A. Childs, Jr. was the editor of Libertarian Review from 1977
through 1981. For the next few years he was a policy analyst with the
Cato Institute, before moving to New York City to assume editorial
duties for Laissez Faire Books. Roy was Laissez Faire's editorial
director from 1984 until his death in 1992. He was 43.
Roy A. Childs, Jr. on big business and the rise of American
statism...the Iranian drama...crime in the cities: the drug
connection...Kay Nolte Smith...regulating the poor...Giovanni Sgambati,
Piano Concerto in G Minor, Op.15...The Discovery of Freedom...Ayn Rand
and the libertarian movement...and much, much more.
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