Politics and Anarchist Ideals
This piece is the tenth essay in the June C4SS Mutual Exchange Symposium: “Anarchy and Democracy.”

A fundamental difference between anarchism and statism is that anarchists do not assume that public officials are any more morally entitled to use force or to threaten people with violence than anyone else1. Anarchists therefore argue that officials are not entitled to enforce borders that prevent people with different birthplaces from associating with each other, for example. Or that officials are not entitled to force everyone to participate in a particular collective project that some may reject. In this sense, as Grayson English notes in this symposium, anarchism and democracy have a similar spirit, to the extent that democracy also denies that certain people have a greater entitlement to participate in political rule than others.

Another fundamental difference between anarchism and statism is that anarchists generally think that it is very difficult to justify the violation of a non-liable person’s natural rights, such as rights against force and coercion. For this reason, anarchists think that all people are equally required to refrain from using violence or coercing their compatriots. It is on this point that democrats and anarchists part ways. Democrats think that all people are equally entitled to determine how political acts of violence will be used and whether and when they and their compatriots will be coerced.

In response to the debates that have unfolded in this symposium, I find that democracy is no friend to anarchism, but that it may be an ally. A just society is one where people’s natural rights are respected, and for this reason it requires the consent of those who are subject to any laws that go beyond enforcing protections for people’s natural rights. Without people’s consent, a law or political order is unjust. People do not consent to a law or political order just by having a vote over it, though one may preemptively consent to whatever law or order is favored by a vote. But people generally also do not preemptively consent to the laws and political orders that emerge from a vote of their compatriots either. Therefore, to the extent that democratic institutions enforce laws that go beyond the protection of people’s natural rights, and use violence and threats of violence to enforce those laws, democratic institutions themselves violate people’s natural rights and are therefore unjust as a matter of principle.

In practice, democracy is even more troublesome for those who are committed to nonviolence and respect for natural rights, such as bodily rights. Actual voters are biased, often racist, and likely to enforce policies that are hostile to minorities and which violate the rights of vulnerable people2. The tyranny of the majority is seemingly inevitable. And because democracies also require assemblies and regular elections, they also perpetuate the expansion of government as each generation has political incentives to do more than the last: even on a small scale.

On the other hand, as Shawn Wilbur writes, in some cases, people who live together must make some collective decisions, and it is not always possible to ensure consent or consensus. For example, questions about the distribution of the duty to care for children, or the distribution of natural resources, may not be resolved through non-violence and voluntarism alone. Yet as William Gillis’s inspiring discussion of the psychopathologies of collective decision-making highlights, it can be extremely difficult to maintain a society of free and independent people when groupish and co-dependent people insist on full participation or consensus. Even if consensus were to pass for consent, like democracy, consensus can evolve into its own form of domination.

In ideal theory, collective decisions should be made in ways that minimize the domination of all people and promote openness and human freedom. The question is whether any available institutional mechanisms for collective decision-making could ever approach that ideal. Nathan Goodman proposes that something like democracy or markets could, to an extent, approach the ideal of openness that anarchists seek. But like democracy, markets also fall short of the ideal to the extent that some property rules persist through conventions, and the enforcement of these conventions can also violate non-liable people’s natural rights.

For these reasons, I don’t know how anarchist ideals, like moral equality and respect for rights, could translate into institutions that approximate these ideals while also enabling people to engage in collective decision-making when collective decision-making is necessary for the protection of those ideals. This strikes me as an essential challenge for anarchist thinkers. To close, I will offer two tentative responses to this challenge. First, anarchist ideals can be valuable for informing our moral assessments of laws and institutions, even if it is practically (or even necessarily) infeasible for any existing political community to fully live by those ideals. And by informing our moral assessments of laws and institutions, the ideals are nevertheless themselves practically useful.

Second, though markets and democratic institutions may not fit seamlessly with anarchist ideals, with those ideals in mind they may have the potential to bring states closer to those ideals than the status quo. In this way, the means to a more peaceful and voluntary society may necessarily fall short of peace and voluntarism. The hazard is that proponents of democracy or a market society often come to talk as if these institutions of compromise are themselves just institutions. Approaching democracy (or markets) instrumentally may be justified to the extent that these institutions make society less violent and more free3. Mistaking democracy itself for a free and just society is not.


(1) Michael Huemer, The Problem of Political Authority: An Examination of the Right to Coerce and the Duty to Obey (Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire ; New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

(2) Jason Brennan, Against Democracy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016).

(3) Richard J. Arneson, “Defending the Purely Instrumental Account of Democratic Legitimacy,” Journal of Political Philosophy 11, no. 1 (2003): 122–132.

Mutual Exchange is C4SS’s goal in two senses: We favor a society rooted in peaceful, voluntary cooperation, and we seek to foster understanding through ongoing dialogue. Mutual Exchange will provide opportunities for conversation about issues that matter to C4SS’s audience.

Online symposiums will include essays by a diverse range of writers presenting and debating their views on a variety of interrelated and overlapping topics, tied together by the overarching monthly theme. C4SS is extremely interested in feedback from our readers. Suggestions and comments are enthusiastically encouraged. If you’re interested in proposing topics and/or authors for our program to pursue, or if you’re interested in participating yourself, please email C4SS’s Mutual Exchange Coordinator, Cory Massimino, at cory.massimino@c4ss.org.


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