The Continuum Between Liberalism and Anarchism

In a private comment on my Regulation review of Acimoglu and Robinson’s The Narrow Corridor, George Mason University professor Dan Klein challenges the continuity I see between (classical) liberalism and anarchism. The contentious point was summarized in the last paragraph of my review:

An improved and more useful study of the narrow corridor would, in my opinion, switch the normative positions of anarchy and the state. Instead of looking at how the state can protect “society” against anarchy, it would ask how the state can protect feasible anarchy—that is, whatever level of anarchy is possible. The normative primacy should go to anarchy, not to Leviathan.

Dan wrote to me (and allowed me to share it):

I think that we ought to be talking up liberalism, and contending over its meaning. I don’t see the anarchy talk as useful.

This is certainly an objection to be considered but the idea I was expressing is not foreign to liberal thinking. In his 1969 book Éloge de la société de consommation (“In Praise of the Consumer Society”), French philosopher Raymond Ruyer wrote that

real anarchism, feasible and actually realized, as opposed to mere sentimental talk, is simply the [classical] liberal economy and everything it encourages: political democracy, civil (and not only civic) liberty, free, unsubsidized, and unplanned culture. Only the liberal economy can promote the “withering away of the state” and of politics, their withering away or at least their limitation; centralizing socialism cannot do that.

[French original:] l’anarchisme véritable, réalisable et réalisé, et non resté à l’état de déclaration sentimentale, c’est tout simplement l’économie libérale, avec tout ce qu’elle entraîne : démocratie politique, liberté civile (et non simplement civique), culture libre, et non subventionnée et dirigée. C’est l’économie libérale qui, seule, peut favoriser le “dépérissement de l’État” et de la politique—le dépérissement ou du moins la limitation—ce n’est pas le socialisme centralisateur.

In the same vein, Émile Faguet, a liberal who was elected to the Académie française in 1900 (the featured picture of this post is a portrait of him from that year), wrote in his Politiques et moralistes du dix-neuvième siècle  (Lecène, Oudin et Cie, 1891):

A coherent liberal is an anarchist who does not really dare his opinion; an anarchist is an uncompromising liberal.

Un libéral systématique est un anarchiste qui n’a pas tout le courage de son opinion ; un anarchiste est un libéral intransigeant.

James Buchanan, who called himself a liberal, defended “ordered anarchy.” Anthony de Jasay defined himself as both a liberal à la Hume and an anarchist.

One objection to the view of a continuum between liberalism and anarchism is that other major political philosophies also have anarchist extensions. It is certainly true for socialism in some important Marxist interpretations (see Vladimir Lenin, The State and the Revolution [1917], who defends the “withering away of the state” that Ruyer was quoting). It is unfortunate that marxism has long colonized the anarchist ideal.  In the old European conservatism, anarchism may not have often been popular but it was arguably realized in primitive stateless societies. That, in these societies, conservatism and socialism are difficult to distinguish point to perennial similarities between the two ideologies.

William Graham Sumner, the Yale professor of the late 19th and early 20th century, had strong liberal beliefs as the story reported by his student Irving Fisher illustrates (Irving Fisher before the Yale Socialist Club in 1941, quoted in Mark Thorton, The Economics of Prohibition [University of Utah Press, 1991], p. 17):

I believe [William Graham Sumner] was one of the greatest professor we ever had at Yale, but I have drawn far away from his point of view, that of the old laissez faire doctrine. I remember he said in his classroom: “Gentlemen, the time is coming when there will be two great classes, Socialists, and Anarchists. The Anarchists want the government to be nothing, and the Socialists want government to be everything. There can be no greater contrast. Well, the time will come when there will be only these two great parties, the Anarchists representing the laissez faire doctrine and the Socialists representing the extreme view on the other side, and when that time comes I am an Anarchist.” That amused his class very much, for he was as far from a revolutionary as you could expect.

It seems clear that only classical liberalism can seriously claim to be the “real anarchism, feasible and actually realized” as well as the only major political philosophy consistent with “ordered anarchy” cum individual liberty. Whether, in this ideal, one wishes to emphasize liberalism or anarchism may be a matter of personal sensibility or strategy, rather than substance.