Childs Against Anarchism

The title is referring to Roy Childs.

I don’t know the writings of Roy Childs well; I’ve only recently stumbled upon some biographical work on him. It was on Twitter that I saw a link to that George H. Smith’s series, and the Tweet was a quote by Childs on anarchism. As Smith writes, Childs was originally an advocate of anarchism — which, I think, is pretty unique for an Objectivist (from what I gather from reading Reisman’s Capitalism) — and then recanted. He promised a piece that would explain why the sudden about face, but this was never finished and exists only in the form an opening fragment.

I can’t remember who deserves the hat-tip, but this morning I followed a link to a Yahoo group that has a short article by Childs pasted on its wall. It begins with a note by the editor, Joan Taylor, who writes,

During the early 1980s, Roy Childs mentioned to some of his friends that he had changed his mind about anarchism, and intended someday to write about the subject at length; exactly when and why this change occurred is unclear. He said to me once that the hostage crisis in Iran was a turning point for him, because it became obvious that when the Iranian students took the hostages, because of the de facto anarchy in that country there was no one with whom to negotiate for their release; but he didn’t argue the point further.

Whether you see merit in Childs’ case, as retold by Taylor, or not, this reminds me of two points that I’ve bounced around in my head before.

1. Recently, Gene Callahan published a short post on stoplights and intersections that work well without them. I don’t remember the exact contents, but the essential take away was: removing spotlights works well when you have alternatives. The broader argument, which was Callahan was implying, is that dismantling government is not really a solution; you need alternatives you can fall back on. This applies directly to case studies like Iran and Somalia. While I don’t think Iran was in “anarchy” during its revolution — just like Spain wasn’t an anarchy between 1936–39 and the United States wasn’t between 1861–65 —, the point still stands that a society without alternative institutions is going to suffer from a significant collapse. In the hypothetical case of Iran (or the United States) the collapse would be much greater than Somalia’s, because the latter didn’t really have strong political institutions to begin with (and a major institution of justice was already “privatized:” the Xeer and the Islamic courts). Anarchists should advocate a forward-looking transition, rather than a backwards-looking transition: private political institutions should gradually replace those of the State (assuming an anarchic society is possible — if these private institutions never arise, this might be good evidence that anarchy is not practical).

2. Childs talks about the lack of negotiators. There is a small literature, including, notably, Robert Murphy’s Chaos Theory, on privatized justice systems, including on hypothetical legal arbitrage firms. What Childs’ point reminds me of is a reservation of mine: what happens when the criminal doesn’t want to cooperate with the victim or the victim’s representation? The common response I’ve read is that the criminal’s representative will take its client into custody, out of interest in maintaining good relations with other firms and other clientele. But, there’s nothing suggesting that criminals have to cooperate with their own representation; they could instead opt to go into hiding or move. What this suggests to me is that private justice would include a lot of things that a lot of libertarians prefer not to support: a de facto death penalty (i.e. lethal retribution) and ostracism. (Someone might not like the latter because it’s a weak form of justice in the case of the worst crimes.) Admittedly, it’s also worth considering that a private justice system might rely more on prevention than on punishment, but I think there are violent aspects to justice that might not be fully reflected in the libertarian literature.

Any thoughts are appreciated. This is a topic I think a lot about, but not one I necessarily keep up with by reading what’s published on it.

  • jaffi411

    Two thoughts:

    The first is that Gene was nice enough to link to my blog for that article. While it is no secret that I get along quite well with Gene (we don’t often agree on anything, but that’s how it goes), and that I actually agree with him in this particular case (in part), I also think that he linked to my blog as both a favor, as well as to avoid linking to LRC (where I gave the hat tip to).

    In any case, the question for me was not whether this was a blow to state governance or not– it would take quite a leap of logic in order to attempt that– but I do think that the video may have been a good example of how something that would seemingly be “chaos” can also be very efficient. In order to have made an complete anti-state argument, I could really only do so on utilitarian grounds. However, I can still make the claim that a market in roads would probably be more malleable to the demands presented to it, that it would be quicker to adjust to those demands. The rough spot is the making of a value judgement.

    On the question of uncooperative criminals, you must remember that all land would be owned in an ancap society (or, at least that is the idea). Therefor, unless the criminal has family and friends that want to risk “safe-housing” him, feeding him, providing, etc; then he probably won’t much enjoy the time spent absent from his “day in court”. Certainly, with the way information flows these days, many private citizens and companies will learn of his exploits, and while they can certainly take a chance, I don’t see most people trusting somebody who they do not know that also has a bad reputation.

    Murphy’s a pacifist, so his conclusions are far different than, say, Hoppe or Block. However, he has been very good at using libertarian and Austrian theory to support his pacifist inclinations.

    • JCatalan

      Good points. Regarding the uncooperative criminal, I don’t think the degree of difference in private property ownership between a hypothetical anarchic world and today’s world would impact criminals unwilling to cooperate with society. People today can report criminals, but it doesn’t always happen. I really think that things like hit-men would be a popular avenue of approach for dealing with retribution for things like murder, et cetera.