Anarchy and Lawlessness

by James E. Miller
Jan. 22, 2014

The etymology of the word "anarchy" is interesting. In Greek, "an" signifies an antonym, and stands for "without." The second root word "arkhe" means ruler and/or kingdom. Put together, that defines anarchy as "without rulers." For politics, no other word has come to be more dangerous. Anarchy as a concept threatens the very existence of politics as we know it. If there are no rulers, then there is certainly no governing authority by which to commandeer. This is why the term is still largely painted as a chaotic state of being, with every man fighting for himself.

Just as ideas are weapons for discovering or obfuscating the truth, words are potent for dispelling uncomfortable notions. Anarchy has long been used as a descriptor of mayhem for the layman. It has been used as a political label to identify radicals. The word has been constructed into a boogeyman to scare the faint-of-heart into compliance. Governments never tire of filling the public's collective head with images of barbarians at the gate, knocking to be let in and unleash bloody disarray. This whole paradigm of propaganda is called "anarchy" and it's fed to youngsters to inspire adoration of state authority.

It certainly doesn't help that radical, terrorists-leaning groups have called themselves anarchists in the past. The infamous punks who tossed bricks through the windows of Starbucks wore the banner of anarchy. Their beef was apparently with the tyranny of coffee conglomerates. That probably explains why destructive "anarchism" never caught on as a mass movement. If your idea of change constitutes destroying the livelihood of the downtrodden, the oppressed think twice about taking your side.

Lucky for actual anarchists, the destructive hoodlums who dress in all black and whine incessantly about Walmart's despotism are not purveyors of the philosophy, but petulant children. Destroying private property is not true philosophical anarchism. And the idea of an orderless society does not constitute anarchy. To the contrary, the core of libertarianism (what anarchy really is) does not deny law and order. It is only in a free society that the Law is held up as absolute, or at least to the extent flawed human beings can manage. The state, with its monopoly on legal force and violence, often flouts prevailing moral norms with little consequences.

Case in point: the recent verdict exonerating police officers in California who beat a schizophrenic homeless man to death. The murder which was most definitely a conscious effort to render harm would have ordinarily been charged a homicide had it been committed by a civilian. Instead, the simian-like protectors of the public got off scott-free for their transgression. There was no law. There was no order. Just a protectionist racket shielding certain individuals from the consequences of their immoral actions.

The whole gruesome incident occurred over two years ago after police received a tip concerning car vandalization. The responding shock troopers approached the alleged vandal Kelly Thomas and proceeded to pummel him endlessly. The aggressing officers first maintained they tried to search Thomas, who put up a fight. Video evidence emerged that contradicted the fabricated story. Thomas was compliant and obliging toward the "peace" officers. They repaid his compliance by serving him the Taser treatment five times and issuing a baton beating so horrendous, it left the victim an unrecognizable bloody mess. Thomas's last, pleading words before he lapsed into a fatal coma were, "Dad help me....God help me....Help me."

Years later, two of the accused public "servants" were found not guilty in a government courtroom. Thomas's father, the man identified in his son's dying plea, decried the verdict by asking "[W]here do we really find justice any more in our justice system?" The correct answer is: the prospect for real justice is slim to nil under the state's monopoly of law. As Anthony Gregory writes, it's "the nature of the state that acts that would be considered criminal if conducted by private individuals are legal if done by the government."

The great conservative thinker Russell Kirk advocated for liberty to the extent that society did not fall "into anarchy." For Kirk and his disciples, anarchy was incapable of lasing as it was "intolerable for everyone." It's from the fear of a tumultuous society where the conservative case for order arose. Man was made to be free but it's tough to exercise this freedom if crooks and muggers run afoul, committing crimes in impunity. This Hobbesian state of nature is the trope most used to discount the validity of anarchy's supposed lawlessness.

But here we are in a world populated by a multitude of states run by sociopaths. In a society where order and law are respected, the cops who beat Kelly Thompson into a lethal coma would be brought to justice. Anarchy does not deny the Law. It only holds that no person or persons can subvert it through the use of meaningless labels. As Rothbard writes, in a truly free society "there is no legal possibility for coercive aggression against the person or property of an individual."

Thompson's death was not a one-off incident caused by ignorance or accident. It was the logical result of men empowered to coerce without ramification. The same goes for eighteen-year-old Keith Vidal, a schizophrenic teenager recently gunned down in his own home by police who found it best to kill instead of subduing. Vidal was suffering from a breakdown and was threatening his mother. When police arrived, they saw fit to hold him down and end his life with a point-blank shot. One of the "protect and serve" officers reportedly declared "I don't have time for this" before killing the teenager. According to Vidal's stepfather "Keith was not threatening anybody... [he] was flat out murdered, there was no need for deadly force."

If history is any guide, the killer officers will not be brought to justice. The North Carolina government has promised an investigation into the murder. If I had to place a bet on the fruits of this inquiry, my chips would be placed on rottenness. The officers may be relieved of duty with a taxpayer-funded payoff to boot but they will not be punished accordingly for their crimes.

If a casual observer were ignorant, he may declare the needless murder of a mentally handicapped teenager proof of anarchy's existence. But of course he would be wrong. Under the state, there is already a caste of individuals who act "without leaders" and without regard to the Law. These men call themselves the government. They don't govern by upholding rationally-defined ethics. Rather, they govern with boots and clubs, with the occasional bullet thrown in the mix. If that's not the common definition of anarchy, then proponents of the state have some explaining to do.
James E. Miller is editor-in-chief of the Ludwig von Mises Institute of Canada. Send him mail

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