Book Review: The Conscience of an Anarchist

This book has me quite excited. It could easily be the Economics in One Lesson for traditionally leftist issues such as social justice and welfare. What I mean by that is it where Economics in One Lesson radically changed the way people viewed the role of the state in economic matters, The Conscience of an Anarchist has the potential for awakening those who care deeply about poverty, social justice, equality before the law, etc. to recognize that these most worthwhile goals are more likely to be realized under a stateless society, than via their traditionally preferred vehicle of implementation, the State. And more profoundly, the State actually creates or exacerbates the very problems that it is supposed to be solving.

The author of The Conscience of an Anarchist is Law Professor Gary Chartier. I don’t know too much about him, but just by reading the book you get a sense he was originally a leftist who cared so deeply about leftist issues, and why they never seemed to improve no matter how much government was thrown at the problem, he started questioning the State itself, and ultimately found himself as an anarchist. Or to be honest, maybe that’s just what happened to me and I’m projecting a bit, but it sure feels that way!

The book is brilliantly constructed, and opens with a most appropriate reminder of what anarchy is, and perhaps even more importantly, what anarchy is not. Chartier defines the idea of anarchy as, “the conviction that people can and should cooperate peacefully and voluntarily.”
From here Chartier proceeds with the 6 chapters that comprise the book, each dedicated to a separate reason as to why he is an anarchist. The first one:
I’m an anarchist because I believe there’s no natural right to rule. I believe people are equal in essential dignity and worth, which means, in turn, that they have equal moral standing. That makes it hard to justify giving some people— those who rule the state and those who enforce rulers’ decisions— rights that others don’t have.
Chartier goes on to elucidate this concept further, and to most libertarians, it is the bedrock of their opposition to the State. I certainly agree with everything he has to say on the matter, but it is, sadly, unlikely to convince most people unless they are already predisposed to liberty. Which doesn’t seem to be nearly as large a percentage of the general public as I would have thought or hoped. Much more effective is a demonstration of how the State harms, followed by examples of viable alternatives that would arise in its place – virtually all of which would be superior than the existing State programs. Thankfully, this process starts in the very next chapter!

Chapter 2 focuses on a brief attempt at making the case that the State isn’t the only method to provide the various services it is tasked with – defense, infrastructure, courts/law, and so on – and offers some rebuttals against common objections to a stateless society. On defense:
One common response is that, without the state, volunteer or professional peace-keepers could end up at each other’s throats. Thus, statists say, an overarching structure is essential to prevent violent encounters between armed factions. On its face, this claim doesn’t seem entirely plausible. After all, there’s no world-state overseeing the behavior of individual countries. But most aren’t at war most of the time. In view of the costs of violence, and because people are more likely than not to adhere to norms mandating peacefulness, an overarching authority with a monopoly of violence doesn’t seem obviously necessary to keep aggressive acts from happening.
A really critical part of this chapter is a listing and brief description of the various historical examples of a free market solution to traditional State functions. He cites medieval Iceland and Ireland, merchant based law in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, as well as more recent examples such as Shasta County, California, the Internet, and the fact that hundreds of different nation-states interact with one another despite the lack of a single, all powerful arbitrator of disputes or set of laws governing them.
Chapter 3 is where the book really starts to demonstrate its potential to convince Leftists of the benefits of a stateless society. A very topical theme in America at the moment is of class warfare, and the Left, specifically, is extremely skeptical and concerned about the power of big business exploiting the consumer. All these concerns are justified and quite valid. Chartier takes a clear look at what allows for big business privilege and finds a common denominator in all scenarios – the State. It is the State that makes elites, that empowers big businesses with special privileges, that grants bailouts, and in a wide array of examples enacts policies that specifically hurt those worse off.

As a well read libertarian I can say that almost this entire book wasn’t necessarily new material for me. By far its biggest appeal was the style and framing of the various arguments. However, when Chartier attacks hierarchies and the corporate form itself, as an exploitive State-created, organizations, this was all new to me. He makes some very interesting points about how the State increases the difficulty and cost of running your own business, while grants enormous advantages to large corporations.
The end result, in Chartier’s view, is the creation of larger, more inefficient hierarchies that would otherwise be unable to sustain their size. You can feel the personal resentment towards the corporate structure and the people forced to work there, as you continue on. There is no denying the validity of Chartier’s conclusions as he follows the effects of the State all the way towards their logical conclusions. Justly addressing the many indirect and often overlooked ways State action impoverishes the ordinary person, at the expense of the elites:
And, without the state’s interference, as I suggest in the next section, the cost of living for ordinary people would be lower, just like the costs of starting a new firm to replace a failed one, so the risks associated with being out of work would be lower, too. Without building codes and zoning regulations, housing would be cheaper and out-of-home worksites could be located closer to people’s residences. Without tariffs and “intellectual property,” consumer goods would be less expensive. Without corporatist regulations and subsidies, resources would be spent more efficiently and prices would be lower. Without taxes, people would have more disposable income. In short, without the state, people would find it easier to start businesses. And with lower living costs, it would be easier to save for rainy days and easier to pick up the pieces if things didn’t go well, so assuming the risks associated with starting a business could be less stressful. And it’s hard not to think that this would put indirect pressure on hierarchical behemoths to change the way they operated.
Chapter 3 closes with the observation of the fact that contrary to popular belief, the State does not help the poor, and, in fact, harms the poor while enriching the elites. Chartier emphasizes what I believe to be one of the most profound and irrefutable critiques of the theory of government:
The fact that the state serves the interests of the elite while frequently disregarding or undermining the well-being of workers and the poor is not an accident. As long as there is a state, it will be vulnerable to lobbying and manipulation, and the wealthy will be best equipped to lobby and manipulate.
I have yet to seen this simple, yet devastating, insight refuted. It would appear to totally demolish the argument for government on the belief that it both helps the poor, and prevents elites from gaining power and exploiting the ordinary worker. Both theory and an abundance of empirical data have demonstrated the exact opposite is true.

Chapter 4 turns the spotlight on war and empire building. We are presented with the stark reality that States enable mass murder on a scale that would otherwise be impossible. Wars expand the role of government and allow for the destruction of rights and civil liberties. Wars break up families. And on and on. Chartier dutifully notes all the various aspects of war and empire building that destroys free societies and engages in immoral behavior the likes of which non-state actors seem incapable of. In a weird sense, I see this as the least effective chapter of the book, mainly because of people’s ability to totally shut off their morals and reason when discussing the concept of war. I think Dr. Robert Higgs treatment of this topic is the best I’ve seen at awakening people who are in such a slumber, to the absurdity of defending such an institution, and the true nature of why wars are fought and who benefits from them.
One of the more intriguing insights in this chapter is the recognition of the effect militarization has on society as a whole, specifically when police are becoming more and more militarized. Both in the institutional sense – military weaponry, tactics, approach etc – as well as the officers themselves, some of which are actually ex-military. Chartier notes:
A further problem: many people who leave the military become police officers…it’s too easy for cops to treat ordinary people like enemies, and some kinds of military experiences can reinforce this tendency. Military organizations and high-pressure combat-linked environments can encourage the dehumanization of perceived enemies. And people can bring their histories with them into civilian life.
Chapter 4 closes with a reminder that anarchy is not utopia, undoubtedly there would still be violent acts of all kinds. There just couldn’t be so much of it, on such a massive scale, without the State.

Chapter 5 is my personal favorite of the book. I think this is where Chartier really shines in driving home how the core social justice type values are assaulted by the State, whereas they would be infinitely better served in a stateless society. Criminal law under the State is an abortion. It is an archaic throwback to the time when crimes were defined as affronts against the King, as opposed to only legitimate concept of crime – when one party directly harms another. When there is no victim, there can be no crime. Unless, of course, you find yourself with the grave misfortunate of leaving in a society that criminalizes behavior the Divine Ruler deems unacceptable:
The justifications often offered for the criminal law often feel like after-the-fact rationalizations for practices in which the state intends to engage whether they’re justified or not. Practices inherited from the era in which criminal law was unequivocally concerned with offenses against the king have continued long after the end of absolute monarchy and the discrediting of the notion of the divine right of kings. But the state does trot out justifications for these practices.
These after-the-fact justifications are retribution and deterrence. The concept of retribution is an ill-conceived justification for a moral system of law as it is based on a desire for revenge. It is restitution – the act of making whole – that is the bedrock of justice. Chartier notes the absurdity of basing a system of justice on retribution when he writes, “retributive punishment doesn’t benefit victims; harm to one person does not as such constitute a genuine benefit to someone else in any way. No matter how much you’ve hurt me, I’m not objectively better off because you’ve been harmed, by me or by the state.” For those interested, Bruce Benson’s The Enterprise of Law is an indispensable primer on this subject.

Chartier’s comments on the inhuman nature of deterrence and how it treats people like objects are particularly brilliant and eye-opening:
Deterrence also seems morally troubling for other reasons. For instance, if deterring serious harms really were an independent justification for using force, it might be acceptable to impose horrible penalties for minor harms if doing so seemed likely to prevent their repetition. Similarly, it might be acceptable to frame and even execute people known to be innocent in order to prevent future harms. If we believe doing these sorts of things is unreasonable, we have good reason to reject deterrence as an independent source of justification for using force, since, if it were such a source of justification, these kinds of choices would be acceptable.
If that doesn’t make one recognize the inherently unjust nature of the so-called criminal justice system of the state, I don’t know what will. Chartier highlights another consequence of a criminal justice system that is built around criminalizing behavior the State disapproves of, rather than providing justice as properly understood. And this is the wake-up call I believe (hope) will resonate loudly with so many of those who claim to be concerned with equality, social justice, and the like:
Punishing conduct because it violates the law, rather than because it’s demonstrably harmful in any particular case, makes it easy for the state to impose penalties for behavior that someone else—someone who’s not directly affected—happens not to like. The criminal law provides another context in which the state can subsidize. Decent communities in stateless societies doubtless wouldn’t have much time for the moralizers. But, in a community in which people really did want to harass others of whose lifestyles they didn’t approve, the would-be harassers would have to bear the cost of harassment themselves. By contrast, being a moralizer is cheap if the state’s on your side…
You can indulge your taste for seeing other people harassed in virtue of their religious practices, their sexual habits, the substances they consume, or anything else you happen to find distasteful, simply by persuading the state to do your harassing for you. You can vote for or lobby in support of measures that the state pays for by dunning everyone who pays taxes. You don’t have to worry about the cost of harassing others if those costs are unwillingly shared by everyone from whom the state can exact tribute.
Yes! Thank you. Say it again, louder. The state amplifies injustice. That’s all it is, all it has ever been. A mighty weapon of force. I do not know how love, peace, tolerance, and equality can be brought about through force and violence. But I can imagine how oppression, discrimination, incarceration, and so on can be inflicted on a mass scale that way. And this is exactly what we see. At its best, democracy is nothing more than tyranny of the majority. Sure there will always be people and behaviors that are undesirable. And while I don’t doubt the intentions of those who advocate for the State to end racism, discrimination, poverty, etc. It simply cannot do any of those things. And at some point, we need to acknowledge the results of our actions, not merely the intentions. And the historical record is perfectly clear on this, the state oppresses. Even in the instance of slavery in the United States, the State actively resisted the sociological changes attempting to end slavery as evidence by the Fugitive Slave Act – which punished anyone found to be aiding runaway slaves. The state has always been a lagging force on social issues. See, for instance, gay marriage and medical marijuana. Eventually these things will finally be legalized, but when they are all it will be is another example of State created and enforced injustices, finally, mercifully brought to an end thanks to an overwhelming shift in public opinion. To praise the State for this is misguided, to say the least.

Chartier turns his lenses towards policing services and, unsurprisingly, finds a host of systemic problems. After documenting the devastating harms of prohibition, the countless instance of police abuse, and the more recent institutionalized resistance against citizens filming police, he concludes:
These recent stories of out-of-control violence are not stories about “bad apples.” That’s the way apologists for the state and for its police forces like to frame things. But the basic problems are systemic. They result from giving police officers relatively unfettered power to use force and from the culture of violence that pervades many police departments. Suppose you’re driving somewhere, and notice a police cruiser in your mirror. Suppose it stays behind you as make multiple turns. Are you likely to feel relieved that you’re the beneficiary of special protection from the heroes responsible for keeping us safe? Or do your stomach muscles tighten as you look nervously— while trying not to call attention to yourself— for a way to escape?
He also briefly touches on the subject of the inherent problems with tasking a monopoly firm with policing itself. As this book is more of a call to action than a thorough exploration of all the topics discussed, I again strongly recommend anyone who is interested in exploring more substantial critiques of government provision of courts, law, and police to check out The Enterprise of Law. I don’t think you need to be an anti-govt radical to recognize the validity of the question, “Who Will Watch the Watchmen?” and be concerned about a system that employs one monopoly agency that has the power to tax, to be responsible for policing its own conduct.

Chapter 6 concludes the book with a call to action. Explore the theory of liberty more deeply. Educate yourself and those around you. Try to live in a way that is as independent of the State as possible. Chartier declares that, “Anarchy is ours to create.” Indeed, it is. So what are you waiting for? Get started by reading this book today!

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