Individualist Anarchism: A 21st Century Introduction


(a working paper)

Individualist anarchism is any philosophy that opposes the compulsory subservience of the individual to all authority external to himself, whether this authority takes the form of another individual or social collectivities, such as states, nations, communities, majorities, races or social classes. If a person says that he is an “individualist anarchist,” and is indeed one, we cannot reliably conclude much more about his philosophy than this unless he provides us with more information. Though opposition to compulsory subservience may constitute the whole of an individualist anarchist’s philosophy, there are many forms of individualist anarchism that are more developed. However, people with more elaborate individualist anarchisms often calls themselves simply “individualist anarchists” as well. To solve this problem, some labels have arisen for particular forms of individualist anarchism, but, also complicating matters is that individuals using these particular labels do not all have identical philosophies either. So, it is important to keep in mind that there are many forms of individualist anarchism as there are theorists. However, some general descriptions can safely be made.

Individualism anarchism is an assertion of Individual Sovereignty, which, at the very least, is the lack of acceptance of anyone having the moral authority to deprive oneself of being the ruler over one’s own body and other belongings. Individualist anarchism may take an amoral "Egoist" form which recognizes no moral limits on the action of the self in order to get what one wants. But, most individualist forms of anarchism take the same premise as Classical Liberalism, which is that all individuals have the same natural inalienable right to autonomy and therefore require that each individual refrain from aggressing against every other individual. That is, each individual must allow every other individual the liberty to rule over himself. More specifically, to "allow" is to refrain from using aggression or fraud to deprive another person the liberty of exercising absolute control over himself and his property. Regardless of whether individuals actually do have a natural right to liberty, it could be concluded that it is one's best self-interest to advocate universal individual liberty, therefore reconciling the self-serving rationality of pure Egoism with Natural Law individualist anarchism - though most Egoists are not anarchists. Individualist anarchists may advocate revolution to eliminate the State or to escape its clutches. However, individualist anarchisms may be purely philosophical and not advocate any direct action against the state whatsoever. Individualist anachists may be like Thoreau and merely expect the scope of the State to gradually diminish until there is no State at all as a result of more individuals becoming enlightened. Or, the individualist anarchist may not even expect that, seeing the arising of states as a natural phememenon, though believing he is not morally obliged to obey states. In any case, no individualist anarchist recognizes the State as having any moral legitimacy in forcing him to act against his own will.

Individualist anarchism is the original conception of anarchism. It predates the infiltration of collectivist ideas into general anarchist thought which dominated it for most of the twentieth century. In the last third of that century, individualist forms of anarchism began reasserting themselves and attracting a significant numbers of adherents –initially through the impetus of Murray N. Rothbard. That revival continues today, while socialist or "collectivist" philosophies such as anarcho-communism are falling out of fashion. These socialist or "collectivist" forms of anarchism are opposed because they hold, either explicitly or implicitly, that the individual has an obligation to serve or assist others in the community by offering his labor or his property, or require that the individual submit to be governed in some other way by a collective, rather than allowing the unrestrained pursuit of self interest. In contrast, individualist anarchists assert that it is their sole prerogative whether they will aid others and to what extent they will aid them. Positive obligation simply does not exist until the individual freely chooses to obligate himself. And, individualist anarchists assert the liberty to not engage in collective decision making and therefore to not be bound by the decisions of collectives. Any subordination of the individual to a group must be with the consent of the individual, otherwise he has no obligation to the group.

The non-individualist anarchisms are sometimes grouped under the label "social anarchism." Social anarchism is in contradiction to the original anarchist concept, which is that the individual is the absolute ruler over himself and all that is his. According to the most radical version of individualist anarchism, most associated with but not unique to Max Stirner, what belongs to the individual is whatever he is able to take and hold by any means at his disposal. What belongs to whom is to be resolved in the "war of all against all." There is no distinguishing between legitimately or illegitimately-obtained property. Indeed, the idea of ethical legitimacy itself is rejected by Stirner. However, it is more common among versions of individualist anarchism to assert that what belongs to the individual is his body and all he produces from nature's resources, purchases, or receives as a gift unless he voluntarily relinquishes control. More importantly, it is said that everyone ought to enjoy this same liberty, rather than only the individualist anarchist himself. That is, the Law of Equal Liberty is asserted

For all types of individualist anarchism, any sort of collective rule over The Individual and His Property is opposed unless the individual voluntarily relegates his will to the will of the collective. Individualist anarchism of course rejects democratic rule over the individual. Even if the individual participates in a voting process, he is not obligated to allow the majority to rule over him unless he consents to that as well. The mere act of voting does not imply consent to be dominated by others. In idealized individualist anarchy, the ruler over each individual is that individual himself. The individual is the ultimate authority over what he may or may not do what with all that is his. This is not to say that individuals in a society that allows individual autonomy may not voluntarily subject themselves to being directed by others to perform various labors. If an individual has the liberty to do what he wills, then he must also have the liberty to do what someone else wills, if he so chooses, because that is also the exercise of his own will. One may offer himself freely to be directed, or may accept direction under the condition of being paid to do so at one's own price, or may even pay others to direct him as in the case of paying to receive assignments from a university professor. The individualist asserts the liberty to choose between following and leading. If he chooses to lead, then, just as he asserts the liberty to not follow others, other individualists assert the liberty to not follow him. In a society of individuals who all grant each other the liberty of autonomy, that is, in individualist anarchy, there are only voluntary leaders and voluntary followers.

But, if the individualist is an Egoist, it must not be taken for granted that he will allow others the liberty to be autonomous. If allowing others this liberty somehow results in eliminating this liberty for himself, he does not consider himself obligated to refrain from aggressing against others. The end justifies the means, for the Egoist. However, as mentioned earlier, it is arguable that Egoism is reconcilable with Natural Law individualism which asserts a Natural Right of sanctity of person and property for everyone. That is, it can be argued that self-interest behooves one to support a system that protects this liberty for all. A "Union of Egoists," to borrow Stirner's term, could promote or establish such a society as a means to further their own individual interests (It must be noted Stirner never went so far as to speculate on what a union of egoists would advocate; they might well advocate a State).

Individualist anarchists assert the liberty to hold things external to themselves over which they are the sole authority. That is, they assert private property. State communists and anarcho-communists, though the latter is prefixed by "anarcho" will not allow private property. They seek to abolish it. However, to say that in individualist anarchy an individual may own property is not to say that some individuals may not contribute their private property into a collective pool and thereby transform it into collective property or a "community of goods." It is to say that it is the choice of the individual whether he will have private property or not, and if he does choose it, it is his choice on how much he will acquire. It is interesting to note that while individualists will allow communal sharing arrangements, the reverse is not true. Communists will not allow private property. Moreover, unlike anarcho-communists, who believe that natural resources belongs to all of society in collective a priori, individualist anarchists assert that the resources of nature do not belong to society. For, society is not an actual organism with a single consciousness and will. Society cannot own anything. It cannot decide anything. It cannot do anything at whatsoever. It has no such capacity, for it does not exist as a conscious being. "It" is merely a collection of distinct conscious beings who have distinct wills whose goals do not all coincide. These distinct organisms interact to achieve their own goals, some of which are shared and some of which are not. Individuals are the only real beings. Society is not a being at all. Individualist anarchism rejects collectivism as incoherent at the most fundamental level.

By far, the most popular form of individualist anarchism today is sometimes known more specifically as "free-market anarchism" or "anarcho-capitalism." It is often presented as resting on a Natural Law foundation, but some Egoists have determined what it advocates to be in their self-interest and therefore justifiable on purely such grounds. Advocates of this individualist form of anarchism believe that the degree to which individual liberty is restricted is the degree to which the satisfaction of human needs and wants is forfeited and that this is largely due to prohibition of, or interference with, the liberty to own private (individualized) property and engage in trade. They do not seek to force participation in markets, but merely expect them to emerge and evolve in a free society. This is based on the observation that when individuals have freedom to engage in trade of commodities, means of production, and labor, they do so. However, whatever arrangement individuals voluntarily choose to supply their needs is perfectly acceptable –they do not necessarily expect that all human needs can be provided by markets.

Because these individualist anarchists wish to see freedom taken to its extreme, they envision a future society where people are not taxed. Instead, individuals may voluntarily choose to direct their money to any of several competing providers of liberty. Or, if so desired, they may choose to not pay for defense of liberty at all and therefore not receive market-provided defense services. In that case, they may ask for charity, defend themselves from aggressors, or partake in some other arrangement. However, there is not a single type of anarcho-capitalism. There are as many forms of anarcho-capitalism as their are anarcho-capitalist theorists. But, for our purposes, we will dilineate the anarcho-capitalisms of the two most popular anarcho-capitalists, Murray Rothbard and David Friedman. Inn the version proposed by David Friedman, private purchasing power would determine the content of law. Whether this would lead to generally libertarian results is highly theoretical, but that it would is the expectation of this theory's proponents. To verify the theory, we may have to see this emerge organically in a society where the state is absent, or see the results of a substantial underground economy emerging to protect itself from state power by financing private power. In the other version, as proposed by Murray Rothbard, a constitution would first be drawn up that would guarantee individual liberty for all. Courts would contract to follow this legal code. The liberties protected would of course include the freedom of individuals to buy, sell, loan, or rent any item or service that was acquired without violence or fraud. In short, the market economy would defend itself. The liberty to engage in voluntary interaction would be protected by voluntary interaction itself. Each individual would be allowed to rule over himself and his property.

Some American philosophers in the nineteenth century, such as Benjamin Tucker, proposed forms of individualist anarchism that hinged on the now-outmoded labor theory of value, contriving from this Marxist-like labor exploitation theories and just price criteria. With some notable exceptions, such as Lysander Spooner, most of these did not recognize a right of an individual to own land that he had purchased when he was not regularly using it. Some even applied this principle to buildings. They saw these things as being available for legitimate expropriation by whoever wanted to use them, thereby depriving the purchaser of what he purchased. Therefore, though their philosophies fall under the popular standard definition of anarcho-capitalism, being the provision of defense by the market rather than the state, to call them "anarcho-capitalists" would be a misnomer since they did not recognize a free market in these things. Benjamin Tucker called himself an "anarchistic socialist" but that would be a misnomer in today's language, since he did not advocate social control over the means of production –the meaning of the term "socialism" was much less solidified at that time. The doctrines of these labor theory of value individualists were complicated, due to having to integrate the theory and the normative implications they derived from it into their thinking. This form is nearly extinct today, as would be expected, with only a few scattered adherents.

Contemporary individualist anarchism has no just price criteria, rejects the labor theory of value in both its explanatory and normative conceptions (therefore does not see profit, rent, nor interest as unnatural or immoral), and recognizes a right to true ownership of what is purchased. Ownership of a thing does not cease simply because it is not in regular use. The individual is the absolute authority over himself and all that he acquires through original appropriation, trade, or gift. Since contemporary individualist anarchists, i.e. anarcho-capitalists, do not recognize anyone but the self as having legitimate authority in determining whether it continues to own what it does not use, anarcho-capitalism is the more individualist form of individualist anarchism. Now, though labor theory of value-based individualist anarchisms were popular in the 19th century, it must not be assumed that individualist anarchism without the labor theory of value and land use doctrines (i.e. "anarcho-capitalism") did not exist during or prior to that time. It is just that these forms took prominence in that period. For example, Gustave de Molinari and Julius Faucher both conceived forms of individualist anarchism in the 1840's which may also be classified as anarcho-capitalism. The most famous and influential individualist anarchist of the twentieth century and now into the twenty-first is Murray N. Rothbard (1926-1995). * The Fascist, Benito Mussolini said "If the nineteenth century was the century of individualism (Liberalism always signifying individualism) it may be expected that [the 20th century] will be the century of collectivism, and hence the century of the State." His expectations proved correct. Today, in the first decade of the 21st century, perhaps the pendulum is in the process of swinging the other way. Perhaps it may be expected that this will be the century of individualism, and hence the century of Liberty.

*Like Rothbard, contemporary individualist anarchists often like to call themselves "anarcho-capitalists" rather than simply "individualist anarchists" in order to distinguish themselves from their labor-theory predecessors whose economic theories are an embarrassment. On the other hand, many often choose to label themselves simply "individualist anarchists" or "free-market anarchists" to avoid debates over the definition of "capitalism" or to remove what would be a stumbling block for those who are avowed "anti-capitalists" to convert. Some choose to call themselves "individualist anarchists" simply to emphasize individualism instead of economics. Still others choose to call themselves "anarcho-capitalists" to intentionally attract acrimonious condemnations from anti-capitalists, thus creating a much higher degree of publicity for the philosophy than it is able to attract under less conspicuous names. One can announce himself as an "individualist anarchist" and be all but ignored, but if he changes his title to "anarcho-capitalist" then he is able to become the subject of much vitriol and attention without ever changing his philosophy. Of course, the remainder, and probably most, who call themselves anarcho-capitalists do so simply because the term is apt. Capitalism is ordinarily defined today as a free-market economy where consumer goods, capital goods, and natural capital are all allowed to be privately owned and traded, with pricing and production determined voluntarily by market participants rather than commanded by the state.


For more information:
Wikipedia article entitled "Individualist anarchism"
Wikipedia article entitled "Anarcho-capitalism"
The Individualist Anarchist Society at the University of California, Berkeley
The Origins of Individualist Anarchism in the U.S. by Murray Rothbard


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