Two distinguished libertarian and anarchist friends of the late, great Roy A. Childs Jr. (1949-1992) suppose that Roy likely had suspect motives for his change of mind about anarchism later in life, and perhaps also for his failure to explain his reasons for his change of mind in print during the years of his declining health before he died in 1992.
In a recent post at Cato’s libertarianism.org in which he endorses psycho-speculations of Roy’s motives offered by Ron Neff, George H. Smith reports that Roy toward the end of his life told him that he believed that anarchism is impractical. But a sarcastic remark by Smith, which he recalls now with regret, unfortunately ended the conversation before Roy could elaborate. Ron Neff, for his part, cites Roy’s earlier reference to the messy situation in Lebanon. “He referred to the condition into which Lebanon had fallen after the shelling of Beirut by Israel in September of , and he said that that was what anarchism would produce.” For Neff, the import of this example is somehow unlikely to represent what he calls “the whole story” of Roy’s rejection of his famously influential anarchist views. Another old friend of Roy’s, Jeff Riggenbach, offers a fine profile of Roy for Riggenbach’s Libertarian Tradition podcast that stresses the influence of Roy’s early anarchism but also scrupulously neglects to mention his eventual repudiation of that anarchism.
That anarchism or anarcho-capitalism can’t coherently function to objectively protect individual rights doesn’t seem a bad reason for believing that anarchism is impractical from the perspective of someone who values life, justice, rights, liberty. In the anarcho-capitalist society, what indeed is to be done about competing gangs—oops, competing “defense agencies”? Would a government concerned about (actual) rights and (actual) freedom and (actual) justice be justified in outlawing fundamentally competing brands of physically-enforced justice? Would a genuinely just, libertarian “defense agency” be justified in “competing with”—i.e., using force to stop—a “defense agency” determined to impose reparations for slavery, to impose reparations for the taking of Indian land, to stop abortions by force, or to extract the “surplus labor value” that the rich capitalists “steal” from their employees?
That anarchism is incompatible with the protection of individual rights is obvious from reading the news. Look at what the Mafia Defense Agency does. Look at what the PLO Defense Agency does. Look at what the Al Qaeda Defense Agency does. Such annoyingly obtrusive facts as the chronic conduct of these defense agencies are meaningless, though, we’re told. Anarchists tend to reply, “There you go again. That kind of bloody conflict among power-lusting gangs is not what we mean by defense agencies or an anarcho-capitalist society. What we mean is the smoothly functioning rights-respecting ‘defense agencies’ of our disconnected-from-facts-on-the-ground theoretical books and journal papers, a society in which everybody is always carrying around a copy of the Libertarian Law Code and has sworn to it eternal fealty, ever ready to submit to arbitration in case of a dispute the defense agencies can’t resolve amongst themselves as if the last three thousand years of human history had never happened. Human beings aren’t evil by nature, after all.”
In other words, anarchists merely assume that none of the proposed defense agencies would in fact actually be competing at the most fundamental level—i.e., at the level of what vision and package of justice, rights, and proper use of coercion they would be promoting in the brochure—a level at which they would not be inclined in good faith to accept binding adjudication of disputes if they happen to hold the exact opposite view of rights and justice as the party doing the adjudicating.
What happens, according to the anarcho-capitalists, in the anarcho-capitalist society with respect to fundamentally different uses of coercion? Is it that the defense agencies will be free to compete at the very most fundamental level, but that they simply won’t want to, all criminal, leftie and jihadic motivations for violating actual rights having evaporated as soon as the anarcho-capitalist program gets the go-ahead? Or would there, after all, be some kind of mutually accepted and enforced ban on the wrongful use of force? If the latter, would there or would there not be enforceable mechanisms in place for adjudicating disputes among the defense agencies, and for declining to renew the license of a defense agency that tries to blow up World Trade Centers in the name of the Allah Defense Code?
Problem, though: as soon as any such reasonable, enforceable constraints are imposed on the defense agencies independently of their preferences in a particular dispute, we are talking about an apparatus of limited government, not about anarchism or anarcho-capitalism. The defense agencies would be governed by this government. They wouldn’t be allowed to secede to institute a contrary program of justice, rights and coercion.
To be sure, unfettered government is also misbegotten with respect to the purpose of safeguarding genuine rights. So what, then, would be a practical means of protecting life, liberty and property in a society? We the people would have to institute a government restricted to the defense and enforcement of individual rights, an institution the attaining and maintaining of which depends a lot on education, ideas and culture. (Which means that anarchists are wrong to suggest, as some do, that governments virtually automatically devolve into tyrannies—ideas and culture being potent in their view except when they matter not at all.) Such a limited government could accept a lot more competition in means of protecting rights than we see today; but it could not permit citizens to protect their rights anywhichway whatever, especially when there is no immediate threat to life and limb.
According to Neff, it’s unlikely that Roy Childs could have honestly come to the view that his youthful and rationalistic arguments for anarchism were mistaken. (By rationalism, here, I mean theoretical web-spinning that may be very smart and persuasive on its own self-contained terms but which inadequately takes into account critical facts on which the theory should be based.) For Neff, Roy’s change of mind was more likely strategic than genuine, a product of short-term political calculation. “I do not think he meant by [his claim that anarchism is not practical] that anarchism was an ideal that could never be achieved, or that competing defense agencies could not behave justly. I think he meant that anarchism merely exacerbated the alienation from American culture its adherents already felt, especially adherents who came from an Objectivist background,” Neff contends, as if Roy hadn’t pointed to Lebanon. (Only Roy’s every explicit reference to the question of anarchism versus limited government in his later years would tend to suggest that he meant what he said.)
Says Smith: “Though speculative, Neff’s explanation of what was really going on with Roy’s refutation of anarchism is, in my judgment, exactly on point, so I refer readers to his account for additional details.” In the same article, Smith also suggests that Roy’s employment of Objectivistic arguments in certain essays defending anarchism was mediated primarily by his desire to appeal rhetorically to Objectivist readers rather than by his own sympathy with Objectivist ideas.
All this strained imputation of merely strategic profession of conviction strikes me as gratuitous at best, a smear at worst. If Smith and Neff are right, Roy, dead at 43, was one of the most disingenuous severely-ailing non-writers of an essay he never got around to that ever bestrode lower Manhattan. But is it really so implausible to suppose that their good friend changed his mind about anarchism because Roy was a good thinker and a man of integrity who concluded that anarcho-capitalism is incoherent as a means of instituting a free society in large part due to the hardly irrelevant fact that it is?