George Walford: The Capitalistic Anarchists

The anarchists often claim to be independent of one another, and at first sight they do seem to be if not wholly independent at least deeply divided, but their divisions have a way of disappearing on examination. One which at first sight may seem fundamental is between the orthodox (if I may use that term) common-ownership anarchists (often calling themselves socialists) on the one hand and those who would universalise private ownership of the means of production on the other. This second group call themselves radical capitalists or anarcho-capitalists, and what is said here is based on the account of their ideas given in David Friedman’s book The Machinery of Freedom: Guide to a Radical Capitalism (Harper Colophon Edition, New York 1973). The two systems are presented as quite different, even opposed, but when one looks past the theorising to the way they are expected to work they turn out to be surprisingly similar.

The private ownership envisages by the anarcho-capitalists would be very different from that which we know. It is hardly going too far to say that while the one is nasty, the other would be nice. In anarcho-capitalism there would be no National Insurance, no Social Security, no National Health Service and not even anything corresponding to the Poor Laws; there would be no public safety-nets at all. It would be a rigorously competitive society: work, beg or die. But as one reads on, learning that each individual would have to buy, personally, all goods and services needed, not only food, clothing and shelter but also education, medicine, sanitation, justice, police, all forms of security and insurance, even permission to use the streets (for these also would be privately owned), as one reads about all this a curious feature emerges: everybody always has enough money to buy all these things. There are no public casual wards or hospitals or hospices, but neither is there anybody dying in the streets. There is no public educational system but no uneducated children, no public police service but nobody unable to buy the services of an efficient security firm, no public law but nobody unable to buy the use of a private legal system. Neither is there anybody able to buy much more than anybody else; no person or group possesses economic power over others.

No explanation is offered. The anarcho-capitalists simply take it for granted that in their favoured society, although it possesses no machinery for restraining competition (for this would need to exercise authority over the competitors and it is an anarcho– capitalist society) competition would not be carried to the point where anybody actually suffered from it. While proclaiming their system to be a competitive one, in which private interest rules unchecked, they show it operating as a co-operative one, in which no person or group profits at the cost of another.

The apparent division within anarchism, between those who favour and those who oppose private ownership of the means of production, largely disappears on examination. There are verbal differences and differences in proposed arrangements, but so far as the way their favoured society is expected to operate is concerned, the sort of life it is expected to provide, anarchists are no more divided than socialists.

(Note: the short article above is a summary of a paper entitled The Ideology of Freedom which was issued in 1976; if you would like a copy, please ask, and if in the UK enclose a stamp).

from Ideological Commentary 14, October 1984.