Voluntarism vs. Anarchism

The Struggle for the Heart & Soul of the Liberty Movement

By: Allan Wallace

Preface:  If you are a Liberty Loving person of any political stripe who has heard of the Tug-of-War going on between Libertarians and “anarchists” this might help you understand it better. I must admit that when I first started writing this article my intent was to debunk the myth of anarchism as an achievable and desirable goal. I wanted to refute the claims that it is the next logical step beyond Libertarianism and that the two philosophies had anything in common. But, in my reading and research I ran across an idea that is truly unifying, one that encompasses the ideas and ideals of all Liberty philosophies, something that speaks to a continuing process more than a goal, and that is the idea of Volunteerism… the more voluntary a society is, the freer it is. And as a native Tennessean the name sits especially well with me.

Main Take-Aways:

  • The struggle over the meaning of the word “anarchy” was won long ago, and not by those who love liberty.
  • Because of this, most self-styled anarchists now use a form of the word, “anarchism,” hoping to retain the positive definition for the way of life they believe is desirable, and to honor a perfect form of Liberty.
  • Or, they bastardize the word with another philosophy, like anarcho-capitalism, to make the ideal more palatable.
  • Perfection is Never an Option! Utopia is Never an Option!
  • We as members of a political party or the greater philosophical movement, simply cannot allow the Perfect to become the enemy of the Good! We need to find a way to work together toward an ever-greater liberty.
  • And, having a common and inclusive rallying point, like Volunteerism, may be the thing that fixes problems of the past and allows us to work together toward reachable, short-term goals, and then onward toward our long-term goals.
  • Simply stated, Volunteerism is the belief that the more a society relies on persuasion and voluntary cooperation, the freer and more prosperous it becomes.

About the Definition

Recently, I spoke with a person who identified himself as an “anarchist”. He told me that anarchy is independent individuals living peacefully together without government, and it really pissed him off that people did not know the “real meaning of the word.” But, therein lies the problem.

  • The number one meaning in every English dictionary is the negative definition (chaos, lawlessness and complete disorder), not the one that believers in total liberty like to believe is the only real meaning.
  • The vast majority (almost all) of people who speak English in any form believe that the #1 dictionary meaning IS the “real meaning of the word.” And this has been so for many generations.
  • No amount of wishful thinking or protesting will change these two facts.

An often quoted saying in the fringes of the Liberty Movement is, “The distance between a Libertarian and an anarchist is only a few years.” But I and so many others like me are living proof that this phrase is misleading, or at least, very often wrong. In fact, the problem we have with burnout in the Liberty movement happens because we tend to only make long-term goals, making the fight impossibly difficult and unsustainable. The solution is to state the long-term goal but focus on and strategize about the next two or three steps and work only toward the nearest objective.

When I joined the Liberty Movement and the Libertarian Party in the late mid-80s, my idea of anarchy was what the vast majority of people think of it:  complete chaos, a wild-west mentality, some loner trying to live off-the-grid (a more recent term), and other lawless, amoral people waiting for a good opportunity to take what you built or created, by any means necessary.

There are other definitions but people don’t hear them because the first one is the dominant definition. The first definition is the only one that has been taught to children for more than a century. The government schools have done their job well of limiting what is taught to us. The war over the definition of anarchy is thereby lost, and irrevocably so in the foreseeable future. Most people, almost all people in fact, are so convinced that the negative definition is correct and the only one, that it is considered deviant behavior to even question it, or even worse if you try to claim that it means something different. Correct or not, fair or not, this is the exact reason Libertarians must distance themselves from the word, “anarchy” and its various incarnations.

To understand what we are talking about, let us further define the words Libertarian & Anarchy:

Libertarian:  A philosophy of life and of government that holds individual liberty and personal responsibility as almost sacred, and that a small and strictly limited government is necessary for a free society. Anarchists like to call Libertarians “Minarchists,” a bastardized term from the words minimal and anarchy.

A Libertarian is one who believes that the greatest number of humans will be the happiest, most free, and most productive in a society where citizen leaders (not rulers) respect every individual’s personal sovereignty and self-ownership, where government is strictly limited to Constitutional boundaries, and where that government’s First and only true purpose is to secure individual liberty and personal responsibility. Safety may be on the list somewhere, but only exercised under conditions that do not breach or infringe on the government’s execution of its first and true purpose.

A Libertarian society would have a system of governance where laws are few and easy to remember, and where the most powerful level of government is Local, where “the People” can affect it most efficiently. Such a freedom-oriented system is one where there is a small network of easily accessible courts whose primary purposes are to moderate disputes, discover the guilt or innocence of those accused of a crime, and to vigilantly & consistently act as a limit to the powers of government on a case by case basis. A Libertarian society is one that will not include the oxymoron called “government charity” but will not include the current oppressive level of government regulation on charitable organizations in place because the government hates the competition they perceive from real charities.

Libertarianism is the only philosophy that does not ignore human nature but uses it to help build the freest society that is possible for humankind.

Anarchy:  The lack of an imposed order, an absence of laws and government (no political processes, no system of laws, and no formal system of adjudication). Most definitions of the word “lawless” are in play and celebrated. The only limiting factors on an anarchical system are the intelligence and morality of each separate person, and any rules extend only to the border of his or her land. Even the concept of land ownership and borderlines present another problem for the anarchist and depend heavily on how well one can hold and control the land they claim. While these moral limits may be somewhat positively shaped by this environment, it is far more likely that total freedom will also encourage the growth of the negative traits inherent in humans.

I see anarchy as being the dotted space at the bottom, and what anarchists espouse as one end of line bent into the circle above.

Anarchy is a utopian idea that fanaticizes how billions of individuals can enjoy complete freedom without any form of government AND remain at peace over long periods. One only needs to attend a Libertarian Party convention to see how well people who are predisposed to being like-minded, freedom-loving people get along over three or four days, to know that it is impossible for an entire world to get along well enough to make anarchy work.

I understand and sympathize with the allure of total freedom coupled with total self-responsibility, offered by this ideal of perfect liberty. But anarchism is not possible in a human society of any size greater than a large extended family or localized community in near-total isolation. And then, only if there is some other unifying, non-governmental factor, like a common religion or philosophy with a strong and self-enforcing moral foundation.

What a self-styled anarchist usually says he believes: 

An anarchist is one who believes that humans can exist and thrive in a state of “natural order” or spontaneous order due to the absence or non-recognition of any authority greater than the individual.

In the version of anarchy that struggle-weary libertarians and objectivists usually espouse, these are the popular beliefs: 

  • Constitutions cannot bind the growth of government over time and are therefore useless.
  • Political processes of any kind are inherently flawed, scandal-ridden, and once began, their growth is inevitable and unstoppable.
  • Laws of any kind are always over-broad and restrictive of individual sovereignty and freedom.
  • Representative government is flawed and serves those who pay for elections. The republican form of government is majoritarian in nature and serves the majority at the expense of all minorities. And, the longer each Representative is in office, the more that they learn to Love the power they wield as it increases.
  • And, any kind of formalized courts are expensive, ineffective and ultimately end up serving those in Power at the expense of The People.

The same total freedom to associate voluntarily in peaceful ways, also allows for those without an internal moral compass to band together to do harm to others. And there will always be those who can more easily be taken advantage of due to age, illness or other circumstances, for the immoral to prey on because the prey cannot put up much of a fight.


However, when people see the positive elements of anarchy as an ideal to strive toward and as a standard of excellence to keep us intellectually honest, the Ideal of anarchism can be a good thing. Just as Christians see Jesus as the example of the perfect Christian. The key word is “ideal,” in other words, a vision of Perfect Liberty. But, unfortunately for humans in this plane of existence, Perfection is NEVER an option, and neither is Utopia.

Random Thoughts on the Subject

The LP Statement of Principles never uses the word Anarchy, nor does it hold the concept up as attainable or even desirable. Many of the movement’s great thinkers play with the concept referred to as anarchy, but only as a though-experiment and only for the purpose of getting their readers to consider that we can survive and even thrive with far less government and far fewer laws than they may currently believe is possible.

The Non-Aggression Principle, referred to as “the NAP,” is an INDIVIDUAL PRINCIPLE, not a moral absolute. As such, it is an acknowledgement of basic, ethical principle, a starting point for individual libertarians, NOT a statement of LAW nor even a rule. “Anarchists” always seem to treat it as if it is an absolute Law, not Principle. For an individual Libertarian, the NAP is a foundational principle on which pragmatic decisions are made, not a Commandment that must be adhered to religiously, and it is not a Law that can be “violated.”


The Non-Aggression Principle is an ethical stance that Dr. Mary Ruwart expresses like this: “Libertarians oppose the initiation of force to achieve social or political goals. They reject “first-strike” force, fraud or theft against others; they only use force in self-defense.” In other words, Libertarians believe that you should never start a fight (individually or among nations) but once started, you should respond to end it quickly and decisively, using only the amount of force necessary to stop the attacker. You may have heard this expressed as, “your freedom to punch ends at the tip of someone else’s nose.”

Whenever people mix anarchy with something else, as in the statement “I am an anarcho-capitalist”, they are saying that they do not like either part by itself. “Bastardization” of political philosophies occurs because people want to find a way to enjoy the benefits of each philosophy without suffering their flaws, and all political philosophies have flaws. Another example of bastardization is “Democratic Socialism.”

I have encountered a few self-styled “anarchists” who love Macho Flashing people at random, on city busses, in public forums, and at community events. When Libertarians perform this form of mental masturbation in PUBLIC, in my opinion, it is extremely distasteful, and they greatly damage our cause.

The problem as I see it is that some self-described Anarchists seem to value rude, offensive, and uncivilized behaviors, sometimes ruthlessly attacking anyone who challenges their vision of anarchy as a peaceful and free way of life. In these cases, their own behavior belies their words, and proves that even they are not good enough to live in the utopia they envision.

The A in a circle symbol and the word it represents should not be used by any self-respecting Libertarian. It stands in people’s minds as lawlessness, chaos, and petty dictators who have the most guns and/or the most people following them. That is not freedom, it is feudalism. And that, is what the symbol says to everyone except those who proudly display the symbol.

As Libertarians: We cannot allow the Perfect to become the enemy of the Good!

It is a simple and logical truth that Libertarianism and Anarchism in its Pure form are incompatible ideas, and saying that, does not automatically cast an aspersion on either freedom concept. The concepts, while being on the same end of the political continuum and sharing many of the same underlying principals, are still mutually exclusive. That is, they cannot coexist at the same time unless the “anarchist” is willing to attain their total freedom incrementally. Of course, there are legitimate differences over what level of government is acceptable and workable. But that discussion is within the libertarian realm and cannot include pure Anarchism. Because zero government cannot coexist with a government of any size.

In my experience, it is only after an individual libertarian completely despairs of and gives up on any kind of political process to secure the rights and responsibilities of the individual, that they start to consider a state of lawlessness as a viable alternative.

I am reminded of some small amplifiers that have the On/Off control and the volume control in the same knob, Off is turned all the way left and the volume varies with how much you turn the knob right. Anarchism is Off and Libertarianism is the lower levels of ON.

When I was new to the Libertarian party, many years ago, I noticed that some had an excessive reverence for anarchy and it confused me because I was operating under the only definition I had ever heard and that was confirmed at every turn throughout my life. Seeing anarchy as anything different was extremely difficult for me, and I was predisposed toward Liberty. But I learned its other definition and came to understand how it was framed as an ideal, an idea of perfection, a standard of comparison for our personal ideas and was there to keep us intellectually honest about the nature of real Liberty. It was never held up as an ideal that was attainable by humans or even desirable. Libertarians of that time realized that it was simply not rational to believe that the freedom-loving definition of anarchy could ever be attained on a large scale… even if a century of government school programming could be overcome.

Voluntarism

As stated before, voluntarism is the belief that the more voluntary a society is, the freer and more prosperous it becomes. Voluntarism also alludes to mankind’s charitable leanings and the tendency of humans to want to help people in need, in their communities and elsewhere once their own basic needs are met.

“Volunteers” is not just a word applying to a certain college’s sports program and their fans. It is a fundamental part of human nature that makes great charitable efforts succeed and causes people young & old to step up when there is a natural disaster, or when our homeland is attacked. Volunteerism inspires the very best parts of our human nature to start focusing on community and society when we have resources beyond our own basic needs.

To build toward an ever-more voluntary society is an idea that all Liberty-minded and Freedom-loving people can get behind. And in my opinion, it should be the focus of the entire Liberty Movement going forward.

In Conclusion

Pure anarchists see Libertarianism as a watered down, mealy-mouthed version of Liberty. Yet the world at large sees Libertarianism as a degree of Liberty that is too different, too radical, and too far from the mainstream. In a world where that is true, how do you suppose they view anarchism?

More recently, those who revere Perfect Liberty and identify politically as Libertarian, have started talking about Volunteerism, which embraces the essence of libertarianism and positive anarchism, includes all points in between, and even extends to middle America and liberty minded conservatives and modern liberals. Volunteerism is the Liberty Philosophy that can unify every part of the Liberty Movement, as well as encouraging the best attitudes and behaviors in humankind. This should become our common theme:  The more Voluntary a society becomes, the freer, the more prosperous and peaceful it is.

Being from Tennessee, the Volunteer State, the following statement has meaning for me: 
Libertarians are the Vols of politics!

As I write this, the University of Tennessee Volunteer football team is not having their best year, but year after year, Tennessee Vol Fans have proven their continued devotion to their team.

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