Getting from There to Here

Blogging can build personal connections between a writer and her or his readers. I’d like mine to do so, and I’ve enjoyed the chance to get to know a number of people as a result of various sorts of on-line interactions. This post is designed to contextualize the aspects of my work related to politics and give the people who read it a better sense of who I am.

What Made Our Home Different?

Born in Glendale, California, in 1966, I spent most of my childhood and adolescence in Riverside County. I grew up in a conservative Protestant home, with parents who were both enthusiastic Republicans—Goldwater voters in ’64, among the last to give up on Richard Nixon a decade later. Despite the obvious similarities, there were at least three important differences between my home and many others that looked superficially like it.

(i) My father, a World War II veteran (he served as a medical corpsman in the Pacific Theatre), had seen too much of military life to be anything but suspicious of the competence and judgment of the people who made military decisions at all levels. He liked to tell the story of how he and a fellow enlisted man had broken into their unit’s office and examined Army placement test scores, discovering to their amusement that, though relatively near the bottom of the pecking order, the two of them had obtained the highest scores, while the sergeant in charge had the lowest. (The same anti-authoritarianism manifested itself in other contexts. In college, he helped with the surprise distribution of petitions designed to make possible the creation of a student council—returning veterans had no time for the administration’s paternalism. Also in college, he helped to stuff a ballot box to ensure the election to a student position of a candidate whose election he knew would irritate the college’s dean of men. As a physician, he sometimes stuck up even for colleagues who had been hostile to him when he felt they were being ill-treated. And, unlike many other self-proclaimed conservatives, he repeatedly objected when the Air Force sought to prosecute and expel a pilot for adultery.) He was someone who didn’t like to be pushed around or to have others make decisions for him, and he passed that anti-authoritarianism on to me.

(ii) As Seventh-day Adventists, my parents shared many theological views with other conservative Arminian Protestants. But because theirs was a minority sabbatarian denomination whose members had sometimes faced persecution because they didn’t worship on Sunday, they understood the importance of religious liberty and church-state separation. (My dad remembered with dismay watching Jewish students discomfited, sometimes leaving for the day, when students at his public high school in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, were expected to engage in explicitly Christian religious activities [singing Christmas songs, perhaps?]. He had no time for conservative Christians who wanted to return prayer to public schools.

(iii) Conservative Adventists rejected mind-body dualism, and therefore the existence of a separable human soul. Like most Adventists, then, my parents saw little reason to be troubled by at least early abortions: an early-stage fetus lacked mental life; and, since there was nothing to talk about the soul except talk about mental life, there was no reason to object to the abortion of such a fetus. This, again, meant that, despite their basically conservative attitudes, they saw no reason to make common cause with the Moral Majority, just achieving prominence. For all my parents’ unhappiness with liberal politics, therefore, they welcomed the church-state decisions of liberal Supreme Court stalwarts like Bill Brennan, appreciatively quoted Earl Warren’s question, “Is it fair?,” and saw no reason not to laugh at Jerry Falwell.

Who My Parents Were

My mother had spent two years in college before leaving school to begin work after she and my father married in 1948. (They had met in South Lancaster, MA, at Atlantic Union College, where she had moved—from Florida, and after a stint studying in Tennessee and teaching in Kentucky—to be near her older sister.) Her evident logical and verbal gifts didn’t get the stimulation and opportunity for display they clearly deserved. My dad earned an undergraduate business degree before completing an MBA, with an accounting major, at SMU (which he attended after being talked into moving to Dallas by friends). He’d arrived planning to complete an MA in economics, but by the time he attempted to register, he discovered that he would have no choice, if he enrolled in the program, but to take Saturday classes, so he switched at the last minute to the MBA program. He practiced as an accountant for a few years before deciding to return to school to become a physician.

My parents moved to California (in around 1952), with the understanding that my dad would attend medical school at Loma Linda University, where there would be no Sabbath problems. He had completed no undergraduate science classes, so he had a significant amount of catching up to do. While finishing his science prerequisites, he continued to work as an accountant. He also taught accounting courses at Riverside City College and served during 1955-56 as a member of the business faculty at what was then La Sierra College (it’s now La Sierra University, where, almost five decades later, I became a member of the business faculty). (In addition, he was responsible for a course in “US and California Constitution.” This proved convenient when he applied to medical school, since he was required to have completed such a course—and hadn’t. The admissions committee evidently decided that having taught one would be a satisfactory substitute.)

My father looked back on teaching with great pleasure, and hoped to teach again in retirement. Unlike many physicians, he never pressed me to follow in his professional footsteps—it seemed clear to him that I belonged in an academic setting. I’m quite sure he was right.

Attitudes and Arguments

I grew up, then, in a home in which political attitudes were relatively anti-authoritarian and reading and thinking (if not necessarily about religious matters) were actively encouraged, but in which social attitudes (regarding race and religion, for instance) were relatively conservative. My parents had what seemed like the serene confidence that their religious beliefs were the correct ones and that, while divine grace could certainly embrace the innocently ignorant, the knowing rejection of those beliefs was a sure pathway to damnation. My dad regularly harangued relatives—like his older brother, and my mom’s sister and her husband—who had abandoned what he saw as “the truth.”

My parents’ social conservatism also played out in support for military strength. I remember arguing vehemently with my dad that the same kinds of objections that could be leveled against redistributive domestic spending could also be applied to military spending. But, while he was all too aware of military waste and graft, the basic principle of a strong military was one he was not willing to compromise. To be sure, he applauded George McGovern’s call to “Come home, America.” He probably would have happily recalled US troops from around the world—he was a Taft-supporting fan of “Fortress America.” And I remember his arguing once that the maintenance of a full-blown military machine was unnecessary in an age when nuclear weapons were available: all we really needed, he suggested, were people to operate the missile silos—the rest of the military could be disbanded. He was not a military internationalist; he recognized that the US government often supported tyrants abroad (he regularly pointed out—doubtless Adventist fear of Catholicism played a role here—the injustice of Catholic dominance in largely Buddhist South Vietnam). But he was a nationalist who, despite his conservatism and his background in economics, favored protectionist measures at least in some cases. The same inconsistency was evident in his support for zoning laws, a topic about which I once engaged in a passionate, angry argument with him. (It felt angry to me. I’ve since realized that he liked to argue, and tended to take arguments of this sort rather less seriously than I did—he firmly believed what he said, but I think I was wrong to believe him angry at me. It also needs to be said that, despite what the arguments made me feel like at the time, he regarded me as his favorite conversationalist, and it’s clear in retrospect that he was crazy about me.)

My Dad: An Intense and Memorable Personality

While my father’s fondness for zoning may not have fit well with the general regard for personal autonomy and property rights he exuded, he was willing to adhere to his convictions even when they cost him. As an accountant, he was denied a good job he would otherwise have received because of concerns that, as an Adventist, he would not be able to work on Saturdays. He went out of his way to make clear to his prospective employers that he firmly supported their right to hire or not hire anyone they wanted.

My dad thought of himself as relaxed and easy-going, and he certainly had a mischievous, playful side. He could also be very intense, cocky, and judgmental. The cockiness, my mom assured me, hadn’t been there before he’d attended medical school: initially, coming from a poor background (he’d grown up with three siblings in rural poverty during the Depression), he’d lacked self-confidence. But being able to write “MD” after his name had made a big difference.

Not that he’d ever needed to be anything but self-confident: he was extremely bright. His mind leaped and darted constantly, and the quality of his arguments sometimes suffered as a result. He was sometimes more interested in facts than in ideas. And he too quickly assumed that people who saw things differently were idiots. But he read voraciously, devoured information, solved logical and mathematical problems with ease, and relished learning.

My Mom: Gracious and Underappreciated

I have focused on my father because he was the dominant intellectual presence in my childhood. My mother, as I’ve said, deserved far more intellectual opportunities than she actually received. Raised in a different setting, she could easily have become a professional or an academic. But the dynamic of her relationship with my father—brilliant and critical as he was—tended to sap her self-confidence and make her doubt her own intellectual abilities. My dad seemed, by force of personality, to outshine her. (Though I still remember with a bit of a shock how easily she solved an informal logic problem I read aloud to her—without seeing it, she came to the right answer immediately, while, as an early adolescent, I was completely stumped.)

She had grown up in St. Petersburg, Florida, in a solidly Democratic family—arguing while a high school student for Franklin Roosevelt’s reelection to a third term. But, like her sister, she moved rightward after marrying a northern Republican. Though she was a real estate agent, she didn’t share my dad’s view of zoning. But on most issues they saw eye-to-eye. In some ways, she was more conservative than he was religiously; but she was much more inclined to accept people who were religiously different than he was. Caring about and connecting with people mattered to her; being right was crucial to him. I realize in retrospect that I’ve written about her with some detachment, so I should make clear how uniformly warm, sweet, and gracious she was—she showed me unreserved love every day of my life.

My Parents and Race

Both of my parents were (by their own admission?) mildly racially prejudiced. But they were also intent on raising me to be color-blind, and they praised me whenever they saw evidence that they’d succeeded. (I suspect they wouldn’t have during my college years and later had they been aware that they’d been so successful that I was happy to have non-Anglo girlfriends. Fortunately, they weren’t.) And they modeled generosity, rather than snobbishness or stinginess, by giving very substantially to charity (though the recipients of their gifts tended too frequently to be church-related organizations).

What I Learned to Be Like

My home life prepared me to be strongly anti-authoritarian (not only because of my parents’ own views, but also because my dad was such an intensely strong and domineering personality that I was constantly in quiet rebellion against him—thankfully, with the assistance of my mother). It prepared me to be respectful and inclusive of people despite their differences. It prepared me to argue, to look critically at religious and political beliefs, and to insist that convictions of all sorts be rationally credible. And it prepared me to take seriously my responsibility to help care for vulnerable people (this was a function of my parents’ own generosity and of the Christian faith in which our home was immersed, certainly not a consequence of any statism on their part—they were full of anger at “welfare cheats”).

Political Development: Initial Stages

It definitely prepared me to be political, too: political discussion was never far away. One of my earliest memories involves going with my mother to vote during our time in Glendale (I must have been two or three) and making her happy because, given the opportunity to press a voting pen into a candidate-specific hole, I made the right—Republican—pick.

Writing Constitutions

While I’d long parroted my parents’ own political views, my own active involvement in political reflection started in junior high school, when I began imagining new countries (the most important: a “United American Empire,” headed by me, as emperor) and reading the United States Constitution in order to think about how best to rewrite it so it could provide guidelines for the kind of state I was envisioning. By the end of ninth grade, I’d drafted two or more partial constitutions and at least one complete, detailed one—drawing not only on the US model but on language from constitutions from around the world, which I’d acquired from helpful embassy and consulate staffs and from endlessly accommodating reference librarians at the Library of Congress (where else was I to go to find an English translation of Japan’s Meiji Constitution, after all).

Making Collect Calls

Not only was I calling embassies—I was also calling foreign dignitaries. Where possible, I called collect. I had amazingly poor judgment about the people I found interesting: most were violent thugs. I lavished attention on Jorge Rafael Videla, head of the junta that had ruled Argentina since 1975; Augusto Pinochet, the bloody tyrant who had headed the Chilean government since 1973; the Philippines’ Ferdinand Marcos; the embassy of apartheid-era South Africa; Haydar Saltik, secretary-general of the National Security Council of Turkey (the organ through which the generals then in charge of the country exercised their authority); and the just-deposed Shah of Iran.

My Thoughtless Fondness for Tyrants

It is hard to be sure why, in retrospect, my thirteen-year-old political sensibilities were attuned in such a way that I lionized murders and torturers. Perhaps I had the vague sense that disorder, violence, revolution were in the air, and that the proverbial dictator on the white horse was needed to protect people’s security. Perhaps I was charmed by dictators’ fancy uniforms. Perhaps I felt, ironically, that these brutal tyrants, picked on by the USG because of their human rights records (until the Reagan Administration, with Jeanne Kirkpatrick representing a very different way of looking at things, arrived in office soon after I turned 14), were somehow the underdogs: I was sticking up for poor, persecuted dictators, misunderstood and unfairly marginalized. (I believe this was true with respect to the South Africans.) I shake my head at the absurdity, blindness, ignorance, moral insensitivity, and wrongheadedness of so many of my reactions now.

I devoured books by the Shah of Iran and his sister, Achraf; the appealing narratives (and the contrast with the illiberal regime that had just taken over in Tehran) doubtless made it easier for me to ignore the villainy of the SAVAKH. I simply concentrated on the availability of school lunches in the Shah’s Iran and was captivated by the talk of seven-year development plans. Somehow, state-masterminded Third World development seemed . . . romantic.

Albert Blaustein

Among the few conversations I had during this period with politically interesting strangers into whose worlds I injected myself about which I’m not embarrassed were with Albert Blaustein. A founder of the consulting group Constitutions Associates and editor of a set of definitive English-language editions of the world’s constitutions, Blaustein, a law professor at Rutgers, was a fascinating figure. I chatted with him on multiple occasions during my early adolescence, my deep voice concealing my age. Fascinated by constitutions and constitution-making, I hoped to participate in a constitutional consult with him, but was never able to do so. Sadly, I didn’t interact much with Blaustein after the beginning of high school. We communicated once soon after I’d graduated from college—I finally told him I’d been an adolescent when we’d talked before. Sadly, when, near the end of his life, he visited the La Sierra University campus to give a lecture and I said something designed to make clear to him who I was, he didn’t seem to make the connection with our earlier conversations. I really regret not having nourished our friendship.

Becoming an Adolescent Libertarian

Adolescent rebellion for me took the form of adopting many of my parents’ basic convictions and radicalizing them. Instead of being a vaguely libertarian-leaning Republican like my dad, with all the inconsistencies that seemed to involve, I would become a full-fledged libertarian. Well, not completely full-fledged. Angry at injustice around the world, I thought the vast US military machine should be used in support of humanitarian interventions of all sorts. Here, I was more of a statist than my dad; but I had such a visceral distaste for the bullying I wanted to prevent that I didn’t really take seriously the possibility that the military machine I—at least initially—supported could be used for even more egregious bullying. How this sort of liberventionism fit with everything else I thought and said, I’m not sure, since it was at the same time that I drafted an essay called “Redistribution for the Common Good: The Conservative Dilemma,” arguing (as I’ve already mentioned) that the sorts of arguments against redistribution my dad regularly mounted could be used against his favored military machine, too.

I was in many ways a fairly typical proto-libertarian of my generation: I grew up with Goldwaterite parents; I liked computers; I read science fiction; I was socially awkward; and I discovered the Libertarian Party (moving house recently, I chanced on flyers for the 1980 Ed Clark campaign and for local Libertarian Darlene Brink) and the option of acquiring libertarian books by mail order (perhaps what explains my receiving a 1984 form letter—something I also rediscovered recently—from Ron Paul asking that I support the fledgling Mises Institute).

At this stage, I can’t remember how. I just remember looking through the small-print catalogue I’d requested from a libertarian book-seller and learning about the diverse array of stuff with which the libertarian world was filled. I’d already spent time with volume 2 of Hayek’s Law, Legislation, and Liberty (obtained via inter-library loan); now, I ordered volume 3—along with Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia and Rothbard’s The Ethics of Liberty. Hayek’s third volume, The Political Order of a Free Society, interested me in particular because it focused on issues of constitutional design; I still found constitutions fascinating.

These books weren’t the first libertarian texts I’d read; perhaps a year or two before this, I’d spent time with Milton and Rose Friedman’s Free to Choose. But I was delighted now to have a set of substantial libertarian books to read. Rothbard blew my mind; Nozick was a great intellectual work-out, but by far the most difficult author I’d ever tried to read (when I didn’t get something, I just skimmed past it); and I started calling Hayek “my favorite economist” (a bit puzzlingly, since I didn’t know many other economists, and what I’d read by Hayek wasn’t economics but political theory). I acquired a copy of The Constitution of Liberty soon after. By the end of the summer after I graduated from high school, ignoring the sight-seeing opportunities on a European trip, I’d finished Shea and Wilson’s Illuminatus. And soon after I’d read Atlas Shrugged. (A very gifted cousin half a generation older than I became a Rand enthusiast. I never warmed to Rand’s work, and it didn’t engage me emotionally, intellectually, and imaginatively as Shea and Wilson, Rothbard, and Hayek did. Looking back on my thinking in late adolescence, I’m struck by how much I imbibed from Rothbard, even as I disagreed with him about some things. I don’t detect the same kind of influence on Rand’s part.)

Somewhere along the way, I created a political party, the New America Party (as well as another, thankfully forgotten, PAC, The Council for the Great Civilization, devoted to promoting the return of the Pahlavis to Iran). The Party’s ideology was in constant flux, of course, since I was, most of the time, the only member.

The Impact of Charles Teel

As I say, mine was hardly an out-of-the-ordinary set of formative experiences for a budding libertarian. And I might simply have continued down a fairly predictable path had it not been for Charles Teel—a remarkable teacher who became and still remains a dear friend (and now valued colleague and team-teacher).

An Effective Advocate of Change

An ethicist and sociologist of religion, Charles taught (and teaches) at what is now La Sierra University, but what was then Loma Linda University’s La Sierra campus (La Sierra college, where my dad had taught, had begun an ill-fated marriage with the nearby Loma Linda University in 1967—a marriage due to end in divorce in 1990). Energetic, entrepreneurial, and socially conscious, he had been actively involved in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. In part, no doubt, because of his wife’s roots in the pre-Franco Spanish radical tradition, he had opened his eyes to a world much bigger than the parochial Loma Linda in which he’d grown up. By the early ’80s, he was very much engaged with issues of justice in Latin America. He read liberation theologians, studied the sanctuary movement that sought to protect Central American refugees from deportation, and dialogued—on his own and accompanied by students—with liberals and radicals in Central and South America. He cared about the world and, in particular, about people who were ground down under the heels of the violent and the oppressive. He wouldn’t have placed any collect calls to Augusto Pinochet.

Falling for Amandine

Among Charles’s protégées was a beautiful young woman I’ll call Amandine. When I first met her in 1982, she and one of my closest friends (then and now), “Bryce,” were beginning the slow dance that would lead finally to a (relatively brief) marriage that would begin six years later. (They were in the middle of college, while I was about to begin my junior year in high school.) She had arrived at La Sierra a naïve young libertarian who had been overwhelmed by Charles’s depiction of an unjust world. I now believe that she could have shared his passion for justice and his disgust at oppression while retaining her libertarian beliefs; but she lacked the set of ideas and tools she would have needed to do so (as I certainly did, too), and, concluding that the choice was between caring about the poor and the oppressed and continuing to endorse an ideology that didn’t seem designed for the real world, she abandoned her libertarian views. She was no longer a humorless libertarian zealot; she became, instead, a humorless leftist zealot.

The first time we met, she spouted off passionately about her beliefs, finally intoning: “Full-fledged libertarian at fifteen, full-fledged socialist by nineteen!” She was being autobiographical, of course. I was terrified and threatened by her assault on my beliefs, and I delighted in mocking her by pretending to be a Hitler enthusiast (provoking some amusement on the part of the others who shared the enormous, old, green Cadillac in which we were riding—her humorlessness hadn’t charmed anyone very much).

Adolescence being what it was, when I saw her next, after she’d been away for a year, I found myself smitten with her. During the summer of 1983, after the conclusion of my junior year of high school, while Charles was in Boston for a seminar, she house-sat for him, and I found multiple opportunities to visit. I also wrote one of my first substantial short stories, about a wealthy young man who returns to his home in Latin America and becomes involved in opposing his violent older brother, who is involved in repressing discontented peasants. (Amandine wasn’t my first source of information about the oppression of Latin American peasants. Adventist missioners had found peasants in Catholic Latin America receptive to a message that undermined the authority of a church hierarchy that was clearly complicit with violent elites. As a child, I’d read on multiple occasions a book about the conflict between Peruvian highland Indians, supported by North American Protestant missioners, and their mestizo and criollo oppressors, The Schoolhouse Burned Twice. [Years later, Charles Teel would become friends with a Maryknoll Catholic priest working to help Indians in Peru who regarded Adventist missioners Ana and Fernando Stahl, seeking to empower previously marginalized Aymara and Quechua people, as his spiritual forebears.]) I was writing, I think, to obtain her approval as well as to hone my skills as a writer and to explore my own response to the injustices about which she talked with great passion. I suppose I wanted to see what I could say about them as a libertarian. Certainly, there was every reason to oppose them, but I think that doing so needn’t have required any sort of commitment to statism. The issues were too confused for me to see that at the time. I don’t know that, in my story, I depicted a statist solution as necessary or attractive. But it was easy, much too easy, for me to think at the time that any opposition to existing property relations must require one to become a statist of some kind.

Engaging with Charles and Liberation Theology

I took two classes from Charles within the first four months of my first regular college quarter (I’d taken summer classes and classes on my high school campus before). I was still thinking libertarian thoughts: I’d been reading in and around multiple Rand books, including Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, Philosophy: Who Needs It?, An Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, and Anthem. I’d apparently even checked James J. Martin’s Men against the State out of the university library. When I borrowed and read it in 2008, I discovered that the last person to check it out had been—me, in 1984. I didn’t and don’t remember ever picking it up. (Lysander Spooner, to whom Martin devotes considerable attention, lives on, BTW: one of our two cats is Lysander Spooner the Kitty.) But I was certainly primed, both by my exchanges with Amandine and by the concern for the vulnerable that was and is a basic feature of Christian teaching, to pay attention to Charles’s message of justice for the oppressed. That, I think, was a good thing. What wasn’t a good thing was that I didn’t realize the importance of asking about state violence and other sorts of aggression in creating and maintaining poverty and hierarchy. I assumed uncritically that the right response to poverty and exclusion was state action, and I failed to see the degree to which the state was itself implicated in breeding poverty and subordination.

In one of the two classes I took from Charles, I wrote a paper about liberation theology. What I wrote was basically descriptive and synthetic, drawing on materials he’d already pulled together. But he liked the paper enough that he asked me to present it at a university ethics colloquium for faculty members and graduate students and to discuss its contents with one of his classes. In the other class, a Christmas break intensive, I had the chance to engage with members of a base community outside Mexico City and to be part of a dialogue with the politically radical Bishop of Cuernavaca.

My move toward statism continued as I worked as Charles’s research assistant the next quarter. I was simultaneously learning the importance of looking critically at the power and position of the wealthy and influential—a critical habit of mind that still seems to me to be of central moral importance—and, less valuably, the assumption that statist responses to abuses of power were sensible and, indeed, unavoidable. I breathed in statism, not because anyone with whom I engaged was involved in a malign conspiracy against freedom, but because politically and socially and morally sensitive people, whose critical judgments I shared, assumed that the political process was the best route to solving the problems they rightly identified.

Global Responsibility and My Move toward Statism

It has to be said, though, that a general awareness of the reality of injustice and oppression and the generally unquestioned assumption that the state was best positioned to deal with unfairness and abuse might not have been enough to make me a full-blown statist. Well into the period I’m describing, I remember reacting very negatively (despite taking a conservative view of the Bible’s accuracy and authority) to the description of the jubilee in Leviticus 25: I didn’t like the idea of property being redistributed every fifty years (curiously, when I was a more unequivocal libertarian, at the end of high school, I’d written a very laudatory paper about the Levitical social welfare scheme). No, what really pushed me over the edge, during the latter part of my college experience and at the beginning of my time in graduate school was a set of encounters with a number of authors, both Christian and secular (the most important were Ron Sider, Tom Sine, and Peter Singer), who placed great emphasis on negative responsibility—with the notion that we are as responsible for events that occur as a result of our omissions (whether or not intended) as we are for events that occur as a result of our deliberate acts. Engaging with these authors, I saw the connections among a set of dots, connections I hadn’t noticed before: given other things I believed, it seemed as if I was committed to believing that, when I failed to provide resources to a poor person anywhere in the world, I was responsible for any harm she or he underwent if the money I could have given her would likely have prevented it. Whenever someone died because I hadn’t given her or him money, I was, on this view, a murderer.

I was not and am not a materialistic person. I like beautiful things, but I am not given to spending large sums of money on them, and in college, before any of these worries occupied a central place in my mind, I was already asking myself just how inexpensively I might be able to live as an independent adult. But I was overwhelmed at the thought that I was responsible for everyone, for everything, that any time I wanted to spend money on myself I would need to justify doing so in a way that made clear how the expenditure represented a net benefit to the world’s poor.

It’s fair to say that this way of thinking was what pushed me over the edge into full-blown statism: if the state got involved in redistributing wealth from everyone, the problem could be put to an end: what I could never do on my own, the state could do. In any event, in a state committed to redistribution, responsibility would be shared, and I wouldn’t have to bear an overwhelming burden of guilt.

Wally George

I certainly hadn’t abandoned libertarian ideas entirely at this point. It was likely while the commitment to statism I have described was taking shape that I concocted a radically anarchist manifesto for the New America Party and dispatched it, along with a cover letter asking for air-time, to Wally George. Wally George was a long-haired Republican media personality in Orange County (and the father of actress Rebecca De Mornay) whose TV show, the Hot Seat, gave him and his audience of OC frat boys opportunities to take pot shots at politically minded guests of all sorts. I crafted a statement sure to provoke his scorn.

It is difficult to know at this point how much of the manifesto I actually believed, and how much I’d written just to elicit a reaction from Wally. Some of it was obviously silly, and the explicit commitment to anarchism it featured was more radical than I think I’d ever actually been at that point—I’d been, I think, a small-government libertarian (I wanted to be a politician, after all), not an anarchist. But I was very serious about some of it—the opposition to such things as the draft and the Reagan Administration’s military adventures was quite sincere. Certainly, I wouldn’t disagree at this point with anything I said when I ended up with a guest spot on the Hot Seat (perhaps because the man who played Ed McMahon to Wally’s Johnny Carson was among my dad’s patients). My enthusiastic call to end the draft fell on deaf ears; Wally would have none of my opposition to militarism, imperialism, and the Cold War (the John Wayne statue and the picture of the launching space shuttle in the background said everything that needed to be said about the worldview he hammered home on every show). When he demanded that I state my position on the death penalty (I hadn’t addressed it directly, but had committed the NAP to supporting the retention in office of California Supreme Court Chief Justice Rose Bird, opposed by many on the right because of her anti-death penalty views), I finally said in exasperation that I favored it—for him. His goons dragged me off the set. Afterward, he shook hands and made sure I hadn’t been injured; he believed what he said, I’m sure, but he was also engaged in theatre, and he knew it.

On Being a Leftist

While the sense of negative responsibility I confronted as I reflected on my politics (sometimes in more serious ways than when I wrote the NAP manifesto I sent Wally) was, I now feel more justified in believing, unwarranted, and while statist politics were neither justified on their own nor necessary to address the problems of global poverty that concerned me, the motivations that prompted me to embrace them were not, despite what I’ve said, pathological. I believed and believe that being a morally responsible person means being willing to do something to help economically vulnerable people, just as it means being concerned about subordination and exclusion. Rejecting deprivation (whether caused by accident, violence, or poor judgment), subordination (at the hands of bosses or government thugs), and exclusion (on such irrational bases as ethnicity, sexual identity or orientation, gender, or nationality) is central to a recognizably leftist political program, and I think I was and am clearly right to oppose all three. It’s just unfortunate, as I now see it, that I didn’t realize that doing so didn’t entail supporting the state.

Graduate School

In any event, I was wrestling with a crushing sense of global responsibility, and opting for conventionally social democratic politics, as my college years ended and my graduate school experience began. I had majored in history and political science, and had initially planned to pursue a PhD in political philosophy. My theology and philosophy classes had fascinated me enough, however, that I applied to the PhD program in theology at Yale. Perhaps because, coming straight from an undergraduate degree program in which I’d only begun to study theology, I wasn’t ready to define a focused course of study, I wasn’t accepted. I opted to attend nearby Claremont Graduate School.


Initially, I planned on enrolling in its Department of Government, intending to divide my time among subjects like comparative government, American constitutional law, American politics, and political theory, with some coursework or research related to the links between religion and politics thrown in for good measure. But I soon decided that I would opt for graduate study in philosophy rather than politics; I transferred from the Department of Government to the Department of Philosophy. And then, during the same summer, annoyed by a communication from the philosophy department chair, I switched to the Department of Religion. (This was an excellent choice. Not long after my switch, a national ranking of seventy-odd philosophy PhD programs placed Claremont’s dead last.) I was looking forward to working with the very distinguished philosopher of religion John Hick, who had set the agenda in English-language philosophy of religion for close to a generation. Hick had appointments in both departments, but he was the titular chair of the Department of Religion. During my time with Hick, I focused on the epistemology of religion and the problem of evil.


While at Claremont, I applied and was accepted to the PhD program in the Faculty of Divinity at the University of Cambridge in England. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do at Cambridge, but the project on which I spent the first few months of my full-time study there (I originally arrived in April of 1988, but dropped out, only to return for the term beginning that fall) was concerned quite straightforwardly with theology and the philosophy of religion. There was no particular reason to think about politics or related matters. Then, however, in 1989, I switched my research focus: I was going to write a dissertation on the idea of friendship.

Thinking about the State

This naturally provided me with opportunities to think about a variety of moral and political questions. And it certainly prompted some reflection on the limits of state authority. I agreed with E. M. Forster that it might well make sense to betray one’s country rather than a friend. I argued that a politics sensitive to the reality and value of friendship would involve the devolution of power to small-scale, local institutions in which friendship groups could make a difference. And I began to read the work of the philosopher Stephen R. L. Clark, who took and takes friendship seriously and whose Civil Peace and Sacred Order demolished conventional arguments for the legitimacy of state power. Stephen sometimes is and sometimes isn’t an anarchist; but he is always clear that the contractually grounded liberal state simply doesn’t enjoy the moral authority it claims. I have often thought in retrospect that Stephen’s sensible arguments cured me of any sort of theoretical statism, but, since I can remember no crisis of statist conscience occasioned by any of this, I really can’t be sure.

Hippies and the New Left

During the same period, I discovered, or was reminded of, a nostalgic fondness for the hippies and the New Left of the ’60s. I was tempted to leave Cambridge with a group of hippies headed for Glastonbury. And I read Tom Hayden’s Reunion appreciatively. I relished—and still relish—the New Left’s vision of a decentralized, participatory society. It’s easy to see a convergence between a call for radical decentralization designed to make friendship as politically meaningful as it was in the ancient Greek polis and a call for decentralization rooted in the conviction that rule by large-scale, impersonal bureaucracies is alienating and dehumanizing. As I have read more in subsequent years about the New Left, I have been even more convinced that the New Left captured some of the most crucial insights about self-government in the American political tradition and represented a far more humane and realistic approach to positive social change than either the communist Old Left or corporate liberal managerialism.

After Cambridge: Politics, a New Job, and Reflection on Moral Theory

I defended my dissertation in September of 1991, with Stephen Clark (the only person in England I could think of who actually did work related to both friendship and religion) one of my two examiners. Back in California on a full-time basis (I’d spent a fair amount of time there over summers and Christmas vacations, and in the spring of 1991) after completing my time at Cambridge, I looked unsuccessfully for an academic job while fiddling at La Sierra University. I clocked a couple of volunteer hours for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign, even though I’d found him untrustworthy during the primary season. After the November election, with what seemed like a long Republican nightmare finally over, I relished the arrival of a new administration that would, I was sure, sort lots of things out. In January of 1993, I found a new reason to think about politics: I was hired as the editor of a newspaper in Temecula, in southwest Riverside County.

As a newspaper editor, I didn’t confront any profound challenges to my political convictions. I did get to see a bit more of how the sausages were made, though. Our newspaper broke a story about the use of sales-tax (and other?) incentives to attract a Wal-Mart store to the area; this was the first time I’d had the opportunity to observe or think about the kinds of privileges large corporations can often extract from politicians. (I was amused some years later to learn that the mayor who had led the charge against privileges for Wal-Mart was now working for the development company that had spearheaded the deal designed to bring the big box retailer to town.) I angrily criticized a local state legislator’s plan to “fatten the turkeys” by declining to execute juveniles convicted of putatively capital crimes while killing them once they’d reached the age of majority. I defended public schools as necessary for the transmission of a common culture. And I reflected on what seemed to me to be the prurience and sex-negativity embodied in some then-current discussions of sexual harassment. But I didn’t experience any blinding insights, and I didn’t question the statism I blithely assumed.

During the ’90s, I spent a fair amount of time reflecting critically on conservative views regarding sexual orientation and related matters (though it wasn't, perhaps, until a year or two after I finished my PhD, in 1991, that I'd worked out in detail why those views had to be mistaken). And—perhaps building on my appreciation for the New Left and for radical decentralization—I also spent time thinking about the value of industrial democracy. My dad had been radically anti-union, and had argued repeatedly with his Catholic, Democratic brother about the merits of labor organizing. Increasingly convinced that work-lives structured by employment relationships were pretty awful, I came to see unions as vital contributors to the process of moving toward more humane work environments, though with the long-term goal clearly being full-blown worker self-management.

The Clinton Administration didn’t do anything very impressive. I was on Clinton’s side against Gingrich et al., primarily because it seemed to me that the Gingrich Republicans wanted to attack the support the state provided to the most vulnerable people in our society. I declined to vote for Clinton when he signed the 1996 welfare reform bill, opting for Nader instead. I was largely oblivious to his imperialistic misadventures (as in the Balkans) and to the domestic authoritarianism reflected in the militia scare and the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (though I certainly remembered Clinton’s calculated approval of Arkansas’s execution of mentally disabled Ricky Ray Rector during the 1992 campaign). The Lewinsky scandal was fascinating political theatre, but it mattered far less than the death and deprivation that Clinton Administration seemed happily to tolerate or encourage.

During this period, I continued to return periodically to the issues related to personal wealth that had helped to push me over the edge toward statism. I certainly didn’t want to be overwhelmed with responsibility for the world. But I also didn’t want to lapse into a moral somnambulism, ignoring the real needs of hurting people in the real world. I needed a clearer sense of what was morally reasonable. Ironically, though I had engaged a great deal with work in normative and applied ethics while writing my dissertation, I had thought relatively little about fundamental moral theory: my dissertation considered a range of alternative moral contexts in which one might think about friendship; I didn’t choose among any of the theories I reviewed.

In the mid-’90s, however, I spent more time thinking about moral philosophy—about both the metaphysical grounding and about the systematic shape of an appropriate moral theory. I was increasingly drawn toward the new classical natural law theory, developed by philosophers Germain Grisez and John Finnis. A contemporary development of Thomas Aquinas’s natural law position, it provided a clear explanation of the in-principle impossibility of consequentialisms of all kinds and of the wrongness of capital punishment and aggressive war. It tracked my moral instincts well, exhibited considerable illuminating power, and, most importantly for me on a visceral level, simultaneously showed why I had real responsibilities for those other than myself while denying validity to the calls for global responsibility that continued to terrify me. I certainly learned appreciatively from other moral thinkers who addressed similar issues—including Kantians like Onora O’Neill and Tim Scanlon—and from virtue theorists like Alasdair MacIntyre and Iris Murdoch. But I continued to resonate with the approach of the new classical natural law theorists, identifying more wholeheartedly, if never uncritically, with it over time.

Law School

I spent most of the ’90s frustrated because I couldn’t find an academic job in southern California (I also checked intermittently on some out-of-state options). Finally, in the fall of 1998, after playing with the thought of doing so on three previous occasions, I enrolled in law school. I knew that, in a pinch, a law degree could ensure that that I had a stable, comfortable income, though I dreaded the thought of working in a law firm (none of my friends with a law firm job had what seemed like an enviable life). But my real hope was that attending law school would open up another path toward academic employment.

UCLA was a great place to study. Its academic culture was healthy. And it featured an exceptional array of people with interests at the intersection of law and philosophy, including formally trained philosophers and political theorists like Steve Munzer, Seana Shiffrin, Stephen Gardbaum, David Dolinko, and Herbert Morris, as well as other people with strong theoretical interests, like Peter Arenella in criminal law and Jerry Kang and Eugene Volokh (who graciously organized several get-togethers for first-year law students and who has continued to provide valuable professional mentoring) in, well, all sorts of things. I was also able to pursue my long-time passion for constitutional law in dialogue with Kenneth Karst, whose vision of the constitution as a device for securing inclusive community resonated with me at a deep level.

It was much harder not to be political in law school: everything one did had political dimensions. But I had no real occasion for reflecting critically on my statism. As I wrote papers—most of which made their way subsequently into print—I took the authority of the state for granted. In retrospect, I find this odd: I certainly knew that standard liberal defenses of state authority were unsuccessful. Was I willing to treat state authority as rooted in some kind of sacred mandate? But my theological position certainly didn’t allow for arbitrary divine fiats to empower kings or presidents? I’ve never been a consequentialist. Perhaps it was just that, again, I identified reflexively with members of the political class, assumed that what I was doing was designed to guide them, and simply treated the institutions they oversaw as givens because I had instinctively adopted their point of view and wanted to be one of them. I’m still not sure; I’m quite sure it was not because I’d given any serious thought to justifying state authority.

The La Sierra University School of Business

During my second and third years of law school, I began working on a part-time basis at La Sierra University’s School of Business. The school’s new dean, John Thomas, was (and is) a remarkable guy: an outstanding visionary always capable of dreaming big dreams and crafting creative solutions; a superb fundraiser with the ability to (sincerely) persuade a donor or investor to support a project as effectively as anyone on the planet; and a marvelous cheerleader, always ready to make any group feel excited and any individual noticed and appreciated. He and I formed a friendship and a working partnership that led to my becoming a full-time member of the business faculty, with an appointment in law and business ethics, in September of 2001.

My work at the School of Business might have been thought to prompt me to rethink my statism—prompting me to take markets more seriously because my colleagues were market-friendly—but it’s not obvious that it did. The stuff I wrote during my first few years there continued to assume the legitimacy of state power. For instance, I argued for the application of Rawls’s domestic theory of justice at the global level. This meant critiquing Rawls’s own approach, which seemed to take existing states as seriously at the international level as he took individuals at the state level. But while I was rightly critical of an approach that assumed the validity of something like existing nation-states (Rawls’s nuanced view needn’t distract us here), I seemed to assume without question the validity of whatever global governance institutions turned out to be capable of emerging from the cosmopolitan original position I envisioned. Similarly, in a piece arguing for the replacement of the income tax with a VAT, I offered some libertarian arguments against the existence of an entity like the IRS, with the ability to review individual financial records and seize personal assets. But the notion that no taxing authority at all might be legitimate doesn’t seem to have crossed my mind. Ditto as regards my very brief discussion of economic policy in my book about theology, The Analogy of Love. It seems clear that I was fond of making the unjustified leap from “There is good reason to want such-and-such an institution or social practice to be in place” to “The state can and should bring the institution or practice in question into being.” (I’ve made some changes, which I hope will be reflected in a second edition.)

And, in any event, I’m sure that most of the students and colleagues with whom I interacted in this period were hardly hardy market enthusiasts: with some honorable exceptions, most business people, after all, are quite happy for the state to protect their personal property values with zoning regulations and protect their business positions with tariffs, cartels, patents, and licensing and other regulations. It was only long after my arrival at the School of Business that I realized that it would be possible to put the market rhetoric frequently employed there to liberating use.

My spirit was still clearly libertarian, though—more than I realized at the time, I conclude retrospectively. I can tell because one (and perhaps, as I think about it, more than one) decidedly un-libertarian friend and colleague needled me intermittently regarding my opposition to institutional authoritarianism using the dreaded l-word: “Well, for a libertarian like you . . . .”

The Bush Years

While my time in the School of Business didn’t do much to turn me against the state, events on the national political scene did.

I did not like George W. Bush as a candidate for president, a role he occupied as my last year of law school began, though I certainly appreciated his calls for compassionate conservatism—it certainly beat to-hell-with-the-poor conservatism—and the humility involved in his rejection of nation-building. Little did I realize that the first was largely a strategy designed to manipulate the religious right and that the second was utterly inconsistent with the agenda to which those closest to him were committed.

Bush was shaping up to be an unremarkable president when the disastrous events of September 11, 2001. took place. In the course of a few months, Bush went from being a forgettable mediocrity to being, along with Woodrow Wilson, one of the two most authoritarian presidents elected in the twentieth century, and almost certainly the one who caused the most death, mayhem, and economic loss around the world. He initiated an invasion of Afghanistan, forced through the USA PATRIOT Act—for a suitable occasion for the passage of which would be authoritarians had obviously been waiting for some time—and attacked Iraq.

The high-handedness, the lawlessness, the evident disregard for just war norms reflected in the move toward the attack on Iraq infuriated me beyond words. I was scheduled to preach a sermon less than a week after the attack began. I abandoned the inoffensive words I had been planning to say. One of my assigned texts was the Ten Commandments; I angrily explained how the Bush Administration had violated, was violating, all ten.

No one in the White House or the Pentagon seemed to care.

Bush arrested people, held them without trial, and claimed legalistically that constitutional norms didn’t apply because they weren’t American citizens, or hadn’t been seized in the United States. And then we found out about the Bush-authorized domestic surveillance program. And the Abu-Ghraib atrocities. And the systematic torture of political prisoners.

The Bush Administration’s track record of abuse served as a salutary reminder of just how much harm can be done when the state has power. I am inclined to believe the worst about the motives of some people, like Dick Cheney. But the kinds of abuses perpetrated during the Bush years made clear that, whatever people’s characters are like, when they have enormous power, if they make even well-intentioned mistakes, truly awful things can happen.

The theft of the 2000 election in Florida (and Washington, DC), and the potential theft of the 2004 election (in Ohio) called attention to the degree to which the political process was and is subject to abuse (not that I have any illusions that Republicans have any sort of monopoly in this area). I became, if anything, more tuned in to stories about the corporate manipulation of politicians. I observed Democrats as much as Republicans supporting war and imperialism and refusing to challenge Bush’s authoritarianism. And, while I didn’t personally investigate the relevant issues enough to form a credible opinion, I took seriously the thoughtful and carefully researched opinions of an acquaintance who’s a very respected scholar and a highly intelligent close friend who were both convinced that the Bush Administration was in some way complicit in the 9/11 attacks.

In short, the Bush years made me considerably more suspicious of the state.

The Democrats Show Their True Colors

That suspicion only grew when the Democrats retook both houses of Congress, and proceeded to do exactly nothing about the Bush Administration’s abuses. It turned to disgust when the Obama Administration roared into office. Obama appointed a paid-up member of the War Party as his Secretary of State. He rushed to defend Bush-era policies regarding state secrets. He authorized cosmetic changes that seemed likely to underwrite the continued use of torture. He talked seriously about the possibility of indefinite detention without trial. He endorsed limited efforts to reduce the USG’s presence in Iraq while stepping up its military activities in Afghanistan (as he’d promised to do during the 2008 campaign). On the domestic front, he made clear that he was happy to continue a chummy relationship with the corporatocracy, cheerily continuing the program of corporate bailouts that principled Representatives on both sides of the aisle—like Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich—had opposed in the face of support from the leadership of both Congressional parties. In short, he seemed happy to be serving George W. Bush’s third term.

Rediscovering Anarchy

The evidence of congressional, presidential, judicial, bureaucratic, and military malfeasance I saw just tended to confirm the rightness of the anarchist position to which I was increasingly sympathetic on theoretical grounds.

Arguing about the State

I had begun to think about anarchy and the philosophy of law as George W. Bush’s second term waned. What surprises me is that I cannot now identify just what prompted my return to anarchist texts and issues. Perhaps I had recently reread some of Stephen Clark’s pointed discussions of anarchism, which had, I think, largely convinced me years earlier that, if the legitimacy of the state’s authority can only rest on the consent of the governed, the state’s authority cannot be legitimate, since most of us haven’t consented to it. I’m not sure; I know that, in the fall of 2005, I began writing an article called “Disaggregating Legal Obligation” that argued, in effect, that binding legal obligations flowed from independent moral requirements, and that purely positive legal injunctions were unlikely to be binding. By 2008, I found myself reading scholarly articles about law and anarchy and then, without warning, discovered that I was hard at work defending anarchism against the careful and interesting but, as it seemed to me, infuriatingly mistaken arguments of a capable philosopher, Mark Murphy. The resulting article was accepted for publication in the Oxford Journal of Legal Studies. And I was invested, really invested, in the anarchist project.

The sense of a growing convergence between my preferred versions of libertarianism and leftism also helped to propel me into active financial and volunteer support for AntiWar.Com. A friend and fellow leftie had enjoyed the site for some time and talked with me about it intermittently. As I became a regular reader—a natural enough development given my distaste for Bush’s war—I grew more connected with its libertarian staff members, both as a donor and via Facebook. My ties with them also helped to propel me beyond statism. AWC is surely among the most principled and valuable libertarian organizations in existence, and I was and am proud to be associated with it.

Learning from Carson

There are all sorts of anarchism, obviously. What enabled me to own the left libertarian version (even if my own natural law version wouldn’t make any of my left-lib friends altogether happy) was my discovery of Kevin Carson’s work. Carson’s brilliance floored me. He had successfully integrated a set of distinctive insights: (i) The same Austrian arguments that tell powerfully against state central planning tell powerfully against corporate planning and thus in favor of small organizations with flat management structures capable of taking advantage of the distributed knowledge possessed by workers. Small-scale organizational structures—more humane, more just—turn out to be more economically efficient. (ii) The labor theory of value need not be read as a normative theory; it can be read as a descriptive theory consistent with marginal utility theory: absent monopolistic privileges, price will tend toward cost, and cost will tend toward labor cost. (This doesn’t mean that land and capital goods don’t matter economically; it does mean, however, that, in general, their economic value will be a function of the labor required to make economic use of them.) (iii) There’s an alternative to the Marxist theory that private ownership itself is responsible for wealth concentration and the ability of the owners of capital to push people around. (a) We can see from careful historical analysis that the use of political power lies behind the persistent impoverishment of poor and working class people. (b) Theoretical analysis suggests that the power owners of capital possess could be theirs only with state support. (iv) Once it’s clear to what a great extent the property of some large corporations is really theirs only because of state action, it’s also clear that this property need not be treated as owned legitimately by them. Thus, even a free-market legal order in which legitimate property rights are treated as inviolable can justify the “homesteading” of the property of these corporations by their workers. The redistribution of this property is justified precisely on free market grounds—not in order to achieve some ideal end-state, but in virtue of the illegitimate nature of the corporations’ claims to “their” property and as a means of honoring the sweat equity workers have accrued.

Carson’s basic insight, I realized, was that it was possible to achieve socialist ends using market means—indeed that it was not only possible but certain that, over time, a genuinely freed market would lead to a wide dispersion of wealth and a dramatic reduction in social and organizational hierarchy, that the power of capitalists was dependent on the power of the state. He helped me to acknowledge the importance of a genuinely libertarian theory of class, one that didn't pretend that there weren’t social classes, but which instead acknowledged it forthrightly. People who already have some measure of wealth can use their wealth to influence the political process in ways that solidifies their wealth and power and guarantees that they will have access to privileges that keep them wealthy and powerful. And people who gain political power, whatever their initial motives, can and do use it to become members of the wealthy elite themselves. In both ways, then, the state helps to ensure the existence and power of a privileged class.

I read Carson’s book on organizational theory with growing excitement. He offered an integrated approach to economics and politics that made sense on multiple levels. I had largely ignored technical questions in economics while thinking about normative questions with economic implications. I had shared the instinctual view of many people on the left that talk about markets was a smoke-screen for corporate power-grabs. Carson made clear why it often was precisely this, but why markets distorted by corporatism were nothing at all like genuinely freed markets, why “vulgar libertarian” appeals to market logic to excuse actually existing capitalism were so wide of the mark—because they ignored the real effects of manipulation by the wealthy and powerful on market dynamics.

Carson also helped me see why genuinely free markets needn’t be seen as eroding stable local communities, that these communities are much more likely to be eroded because of state subsidies that incentivize long-distance shipping and travel. Carson’s work alerted me to the brilliant books and essays of Bill Kauffman, whose radical localism captures valuable elements of Green, conservative, and libertarian thinking. It also suggested that, even as our oil supply diminishes and energy costs rise, flourishing local economies will be possible once resources are no longer diverted to inefficient uses because of state subsidies to creaky corporate hierarchies and long-haul shipping.

Carson showed me a way to link the various kinds of anti-authoritarianism that all seemed to matter to me emotionally—I could oppose state power and corporate power at the same time. He provided me an analytical framework that enabled me to be an authentic leftie and a market anarchist at the same time. His work excited me as that of few writers had ever done. I was beginning to see that market anarchism was compatible with genuine opposition to deprivation, exclusion, and subordination, which I regard as the touchstones of any authentically leftist politics. And I realized, increasingly, that the very existence of the state made war much more likely and dramatically increased opportunities for managerially paternalistic interferences with people’s freedom.

Finding an Intellectual Community

I knew that, on a deep, visceral level, I resonated with the market anarchists on issues related to war and empire; immigration; tariffs; land use regulation; the legal regulation of sex, drugs, and gambling; the value of replacing criminal law with tort law; occupational licensure; intellectual “property”; and civil liberties. I knew that a system that allowed for the application of tort law on a case-by-case basis by local juries could achieve the desirable goals of state regulation with lower costs and greater flexibility. I was confident that a fully free banking system, with a range of competing currencies, was the best available hedge against inflation and currency manipulation (though I believe sensible people choosing among such currencies would opt for ones that were commodity-backed). I imagined that Carson was right that, without state props for the wealthy and well connected, many more people would work for themselves or as participants in partnerships or cooperatives, and that, where employment for wages persisted, unions would be able to win meaningful victories for workers, who would enjoy much stronger bargaining positions than they do in an environment distorted by statist privilege.

Thinkers like Carson, Roderick Long, Charles Johnson, Shawn Wilbur, Brad Spangler, and William Gillis didn’t like to see people pushed around. Neither did I. They weren’t corporate shills. They weren’t pot-smoking Republicans. They were genuine radicals. They were my kind of people.

What they showed me was simple. I could combine the desire for real freedom that had motivated my libertarian convictions with the desire for inclusion, widely shared prosperity, mutual support, and empowerment—the rejection of exclusion, deprivation, and subordination—that I embraced as a leftist.

The Idiosyncrasies of My Own Version of Market Anarchism

While I readily identified with the left-libertarians I’d encountered, that didn’t mean, of course, I agreed with any of them about everything. The new classical natural law theory had taught me—wisely, I think—to see multiple property systems as compatible with justice. That meant that I couldn’t regard Lockean, or Rothbardian, or Geoist, or mutualist property rules as the only reasonable ones. Different communities would doubtless have different rules in a stateless society. And that, I realized, was OK: not just because we’d need to discover which ones worked better, but because, at least in some cases, there would be no fact of the matter to be determined—incommensurable values would be at play, and reasonable people would be free to select any of several options.

The natural law tradition (and here Locke echoes Aquinas) also made clear that property rights weren’t absolute. Of course, it was quite compatible with the recognition that multiple overlapping concerns—from autonomy to reliability to productivity to simplicity to the need for peace to efficiency to stewardship to generosity to compensation to the links between a person’s identity and some of her property—justify stable, dependable property rights. But it also emphasized that, at least in an emergency situation, someone could rightly access another’s property. (My own view is that this kind of emergency access ought to be seen as morally acceptable, but that the trespasser or thief should never be able to obtain legal title through emergency access and should still be required by a just legal system to compensate the owner for any loss occasioned by her infringement on the owner’s rights.) That seemed more humane to me than a kind of propertarian absolutism.

More broadly, it seemed to me, the natural law tradition’s conception of property offered no reason to think that in some stateless communities tort law wouldn’t be used to resolve some issues that other communities might choose to address using dispute resolution mechanisms outside the legal system. No community in a stateless society would have (by definition) a monopoly of force and exit from such a community could be relatively easy (especially since some communities, perhaps many or most, would be virtual rather than geographically localized). So people might well be open to consenting to tort law remedies for wrongs people in other communities might address through boycotts, protests, blacklists, public shaming, and other non-violent means outside the legal system. (Remedies, legal and non-legal, that didn’t work well over the long term would surely tend to disappear from a society that featured multiple institutional options.)

Vulnerable People in a Stateless Society

One thing that might initially seem to be a problem no longer seemed to be on reflection: the organization and provision of social services. I realized that state action made and kept many people poor. Eliminating a variety of state privileges would ensure, I realized, that far fewer people suffered from poverty. As I’ve tried to argue more extensively elsewhere, poverty need not be a problem in a stateless society.

Thus, for instance: the current debate about health care focused on folding currently uninsured people into the existing, high-priced health-care system. But I realized that, if the goal was to increase access to health care, that goal could be achieved by a combination of structural changes that would represent a radical transformation of the existing system rather than its expansion: (i) eliminating state policies that limit people’s abilities to make money (notably various licensing requirements); (ii) eliminating state policies that raise the cost of living generally (especially various land use regulations, which drive up the costs of operating businesses and the costs of obtaining housing), so that people’s money doesn’t go as far as it otherwise would and so that they have less available to spend on health care; and (iii) eliminating state policies that increase the cost of health-care in particular, including professional licensing requirements, hospital accreditation requirements, drug patents, medical device patents, limitations on competition among insurance agencies, and tax preferences for employer-purchased health insurance.

But while this multi-pronged approach would certainly make a huge difference, the market is (I realized), as Austrians like to emphasize, temporally extended, processive. At any given moment, no perfect equilibrium can be said to have been achieved. And there are accidents, genetically based illnesses, injustices—a whole range of things that can cause economic vulnerability and insecurity even in a genuinely freed market.

What I realized, however, was that it was fallacious to suppose that the state was needed to address these problems. If people are genuinely concerned about these problems now, they will surely be concerned about them in a stateless society. In such a society, people will have more discretionary wealth: their resources won’t be claimed as tribute by a state that wants to support a vast war machine or an inefficient administrative bureaucracy. At the same time, there will be less poverty. And people who might object to the misuse of money by an impersonal welfare bureaucracy need not have similar concerns about human-scale institutions the operations of which they can directly observe and which they can choose to support or not.

It is not the case that, in contemporary societies, the resources used to fund measures designed to provide poverty relief and foster economic security are extracted at gun-point from wealthy people by poor and working class people. Wealthy, powerful people vote (in polling booths and legislatures) for economic security programs which the money they, among others, pay in taxes will fund. (Many people, both wealthy and not, also make significant charitable contributions, even though they don’t receive anything like a comparable amount back in tax deductions.) Perhaps they do this in part to avoid economic instability, in part to look magnanimous, in part because others will think ill of them if they do not, and in part because they are genuinely concerned about economically vulnerable people. All of these reasons could motivate people in a stateless society to give personally just as they motivate people in today’s world both to give their own money away and to support tax-funded economic security programs. In stable, local communities, reputational and other norms (compare their operation in, say, Diaspora Jewish communities) could definitely ensure that support of economic security programs was wide-ranging. (To be sure, there will be significantly smaller disparities in wealth and power in a stateless society than there are now. But that just means that the kind of vulnerability that requires economic security programs will be less prevalent in such a society.)

I had opted for statism over anarchism without thinking clearly. I had operated reflexively on the assumption that a stateless society wouldn’t be able to solve the problems I believed the state could solve. Now, I realized both that a stateless society would be more creative than I had realized and that many of the problems that concerned me were in fact caused by the state.

Coming Home?

That was exciting. So was rediscovering an aspect of my past. I’d been a natural fit for the libertarian movement in a lot of ways, but I’d left it behind because I didn’t want to be, couldn’t be, a rightist. Now, from a new perspective, I was able to rediscover the libertarian world The Internet made far easier my reconnection with a libertarian culture that might otherwise have passed me by (though, to be sure, my home town of Riverside is also home to Renaissance Books, perhaps the only remaining libertarian bookstore in the United States). It has been great to be able to make contact not only with such left-libertarians as Carson, Long, Johnson, Sheldon Richman, Wilbur, and Spangler (whose work for the Center for a Stateless Society has been outstanding), but also with people as diverse as Angela Keaton, Mike Gogulski, Teresa Warmke, James Tuttle, Danny Shahar, Andrew Taranto, Keith Hamburger, Alex Ramiresonty, Todd Andrew Barnett, Matthew Barnes, Carolyn Marbry, Rachel Hawkridge, Thomas L. Knapp, Gene Berkman, David and Mary Theroux, Wendy McElroy, Brian Doherty, Lidia and Mike Seebeck, David Nolan, Barbara Branden, Stephan Kinsella, Jim Davidson, Erik Geib, George Phillies, Matt Harris, Elizabeth Bernard Higgs, and Karol Boudreaux (a number of them by no means leftists, but all engaging conversation partners), often using on-line resources that hadn’t existed when I first became politically aware.

You can’t ever quite go home again. I haven’t returned to my adolescent libertarianism, nor would I want to. But I am very pleased, on multiple levels, to have found a way to integrate my formative political passion for freedom—my visceral distaste for being, or seeing others be, pushed around—with deep-seated moral opposition to exclusion, deprivation, and subordination. I have found a way to articulate a version of market anarchism, informed by natural law theory, that I can embrace as both a committed leftist and as an enthusiastic libertarian.


rmangum said…
Thanks for sharing this story. I always find these "How I Became a Libertarian" stories fascinating. Most of us have one, since most of us weren't raised to be one.
wgogloza said…
Very interesting read. Thanks, for sharing. Any new on when The Conscience of an Anarchist will become available?
Gary Chartier said…
Thanks for the comments—it's good to hear from readers. (A friend told me earlier this week that the average blogger has one reader, so I guess I've beaten the odds.)

Ray: I think there's probably a sense in which I was raised to be a libertarian, given my dad's inconsistently libertarian impulses. Obviously, saying that wouldn't be saying everything, though—and wouldn't make for (what I'm inclined to think would be) as interesting a story.

Wladimir: can I ask how you happened to read this piece just now? I'm curious because, though I can (see my friend's claim, quote above) go for long periods without comments, I got one today and one (on another post) the day before. Have I just been added to someone's blog roll?

OK, enough narcissism; thanks to both of you for checking in.

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