An Introduction to Individualist Anarchism

Taking the State wherever found, striking into its history at any point, one sees no way to differentiate the activities of its founders, administrators, and beneficiaries from those of a professional-criminal class.
— Albert Jay Nock, Our Enemy the State

Anarcho-capitalism or free-market anarchism is often classified as a type of libertarianism — although not everyone is satisfied with that taxonomy. There are actually some significant differences, in part because "libertarianism" is a relatively big tent, whereas anarcho-capitalism is much more tightly reasoned ... but you have to start somewhere, and that strikes me as good a place as any.

As with a number of things in my life (see also my yinshih page, for example), I held free-market anarchist ideas long before I knew there was a name, or actually many names (see below) for this set of ideas. But I have learned much more through reading and reflecting upon the vast body of an-cap literature, both in print and online.

What's in a Name?

The first part of the name, anarcho, obviously derives from anarchy. Right away, this can be confusing and a complication. The important thing to understand is that, contrary to common usage, "anarchy" and "chaos" are not synonyms (when people use anarchy colloquially, what they generally mean is anomie). "Anarchy" comes from the Greek an- (without) and arkhos (ruler). Therefore, as writer Jim Dodge has said, "Anarchy doesn't mean out of control, it means out of THEIR control."

A little less obscurely, Roy Childs described it in his famous open letter to Ayn Rand as "the absence of political control." In that letter, Childs rejected traditional libertarianism — often called minarchism for its advocacy of minimalist, "night watchman" government — as flawed, contradictory, and ultimately a failure. If the State is itself a moral evil (and anarcho-capitalists believe it is), advocating or tolerating even minimal evil is still ... evil.

The second half of the name, capitalism, has its own set of baggage, starting with the fact that Karl Marx coined the word and it's always a bad idea to let your enemies define your terms; personally, I'm starting to prefer market anarchist to anarcho-capitalist as a descriptive term.

Regardless of who coined it, capitalism means is a free market, laissez-faire economy, voluntary trade and exchange, and a high emphasis placed on the right of individuals to own, possess, use, and dispose of private property (this is what distinguishes anarcho-capitalists from left-anarchists — really socialists — who hate private property).

Put together, then, an anarcho-capitalist society would be one in which human interactions are based on people satisfying their needs and desires through voluntary and mutually beneficial association and trade (the "economic means", as Franz Oppenheimer called them), as opposed to getting what they want through force, fraud, compulsion, and the threat — all too often, reality — of violence and death (the "political means"). When Mao said power flowed from the barrel of a gun, he was talking about political power, and truer words were never spoke.

Maybe you'd prefer one of these names instead?

As befits a philosophy that glories in the free market, there are a variety of different names for this set of ideas. Here are a few I've run into:

Not all of these are precise synonyms, but each has its virtues, emphasizing a different facet of what anarcho-capitalism stands for. "The natural order," Hans Hoppe's term, is especially elegant, I think. It also recalls Adam Smith's description of the free market as "the obvious and simple system of natural liberty."

A Concept to Leave You With

More than an economic or political theory, anarcho-capitalism is primarily a theory of law. And one of its central ideas is contained (among other places, of course) in John Locke's Second Treatise on Government, where he said:

The people cannot delegate to government the power to do anything which would be unlawful for them to do themselves.

Think about that for a moment.

I don't have a right to pull a gun on you and steal your money. Therefore, I cannot authorize my huge friend Bruno to steal your money. The fact that Bruno and I go to rob you together doesn't give us any more right to your money than we had before, even though we outnumber you.

But ... what if the two of us, and 200 or 2,000 of our neighbors, get together and instead of calling ourselves an armed gang or a militia, decide to call ourselves a "government"? Do we then have the right to take your money? Certainly, we have the power to do so. But does that give us the right?

No. Not even if we pretend to have your consent by calling ourselves "The People," and saying we took a vote and confirmed our right to your money and, well, you could have voted too if you had wanted to (this is a democracy after all).

Taxation is theft. It really is that simple.

Groups don't have rights.* Governments (so-called) don't have rights. Only persons have rights. And therefore, anything that is wrong for a person to do, it is also wrong for a group of people to do, even if that group calls itself a "government"! (Gene Callaghan expands on this key libertarian principle, including how it applies to war, in a useful article on

Many "minarchist" libertarians cede to the State (often for utilitarian reasons) the right or power to do things like operate roads, maintain police or fire services or a criminal justice system, and so on. This is where they part company with anarcho-capitalists, who believe there is no function the State serves which cannot be served better, and more importantly, more ethically, by individual people interacting with each other on the basis of voluntary, mutual consent. This is true not only for the obvious things, like schools, roads, poverty relief (even more than charity, the best poverty-relief program is free-market capitalism), protecting the environment, health care, monetary policy, and airport security screeners, but also for things minarchists concede we "need" government to provide, like immigration policy, police and a legal system, and even national defense.

*I assert it as a given here that only individuals have rights. I recognize, though, that much of the tragedy of at least the past two centuries comes from some people embracing the idea that groups — tribes, races, nations, religious groups, "society" — do have rights that supercede those of the person. To explore why individualist anarchists and other libertarians reject that argument, I recommend starting with Chapter Two of Rothbard's For a New Liberty (especially the section called "Society and the Individual") and also this interesting discussion on a libertarian blog.

If you're interested in learning more, I would direct you to these links to anarcho-capitalism definitions and starting places; and news, analysis and commentary.