That’s Unpossible!

May 14, 2010

Gene Callahan confesses to a problem he sees for “ideological anarchism”:

But consider the institution of private property, which anarcho-capitalists [sic – only them?] often hold out as ‘peaceful’ and ‘voluntary,’ as opposed to the ‘violent’ and ‘coercive’ State. Well, it is true that private property is peaceful – just so long as everyone agrees to follow the same property rules, in other words, its peacefulness depends upon its voluntariness. But the latter is often absent. Many, many times, people fail to agree on just who owns what – and then private property turns violent and coercive. Let’s say you believe wild lands should be free for all to roam, while I believe I own some woods in which I employ my truffle pigs. If this difference of opinion cannot be resolved, and the issue is of some importance to each of us, one of us will wind up coercing the other to accept his point of view.

The State is either peaceful and voluntary or violent and coercive in just the same way and for just the same reasons. As long as everyone agrees to and follows the State’s rules, there is no need for violence and coercion. It is only when there are disputes over the rules, or an unwillingness to follow them, that violence ensues.

…government can exist without coercion in the exact same way and to the exact same extent that private property can exist without coercion: to the extent everyone voluntarily respects its rules.

But what if it is not possible to “voluntarily respect [the state’s] rules” or for the state to “exist without coercion”?

If there is no effective possibility of refusal, then there is no possibility of publicly expressing consent, and if there is no possibility of publicly expressing consent, then there is no possibility of consenting. If existing states make a standing threat to force people to submit to their terms, even if they do not agree to those terms, then governments cut off any effective possibility of refusal, and thus nobody can do anything that would count as consenting to be ruled by an existing state — even if she wants to do so, and even if she sincerely says that she agrees to the terms. Since all existing states do make that standard threat, no existing state rules by consent over any individual subject. And if governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, then no government has any just powers at all. Even the most patriotic pledger or the most dutiful voter has not consented to be bound by the terms the state imposes, even if she tried to get herself bound by them; she is not bound in conscience to pay taxes, or to obey government prohibitions, or to obey the government’s requirements in any other way, for even one second longer than she wants to. And no existing state has either the duty or the right to enforce those terms on her.

- Charles Johnson, Can anybody ever consent to the State? (Emphasis mine)

If Charles is right (hint: I think he is), does the concept of private property suffer from the same impossibility? If it doesn’t, it seems Callahan’s analogy cannot work. If it does, it only seems so much the worse for private property rather than adding support to Callahan’s (impossible) suggestion that:

The actual way forward towards a less coercive society consists not in de-legitimizing the State, but in legitimizing it, in other words, promoting voluntary compliance with the State’s laws in so far as they are just, and working to change them peacefully in so far as they are not.

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2 Responses to “That’s Unpossible!”

  1. You Says:

    Ah, so that’s what Callahan has been trolling anarchists lately…

    I think he’s wrong, though. A state is coercive and unjust by its very nature (i.e. a division of society into rulers and ruled), a problem that still exists even if it’s “voluntary” (which of course, as Johnson’s essay demonstrates, is impossible anyway). Whereas “private property”, defined broadly, may or may not be just, depending on what it’s referring to. (I hardly see how it’s coercion to not stay out of the forest just because someone tells you it’s his…) The problem with PP is not that it’s “involuntary” per se — as someone should by all means defend their own personal, nonexploitative property. The problem is PP claims that result in authoritarianism, which should be rejected along with the state.

    If “the state” were being defined as social order, I would have to agree in a way, but there’s no reason to define it as such.


  2. […] 15, 2010 In a new post, Gene Callahan expands upon his recent theme of “rejecting ideology,” particularly with respect to libertarianism. At one point in […]


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