On Definitions and Straw MenSubmitted by Marc Clair on Tue, 07/22/2014 - 12:01
Last week’s episode of the Lions of Liberty Podcast featuring my interview with Shayne Wissler regarding his essay “Against Anarchism” has generated a lot of discussion, particularly over at The Daily Paul forums. Wissler certainly advocates against conventional libertarian wisdom regarding the concept of anarchism, and as many libertarians have adopted the “anarchist” label, it comes as no great surprise that controversy would ensure.
Though I’ve never self-identified specifically as an “anarchist”, I have devoted significant time on this very website to exploring the ideas surrounding how individual rights could be upheld in an anarchist society – aka a society without a formal system of government. I even devoted an entire episode of the Lions of Liberty Podcast to discuss anarcho-capitalism with Robert Murphy.
The reason for this is that, as an advocate for a society where individual rights are understood, respected, and defended, I have an open mind towards any individuals who have some sort of vision for how such a society could be implemented. I’ve provided air time for Wissler and Murphy, as well as others such as Fred Foldvary and Adam Kokesh, in order to continue pushing forward this dialogue. I have the utmost respect and admiration for all advocates of individual liberty, even those with which I share serious disagreements.
I’ve noticed that one of the major disagreements in the present discussion regarding anarchism centers around definitions, particularly the definitions of the words “anarchism” and “government.” Many principled individuals in this discussion will find agreement on the general ideas being discussed, but will vehemently dispute the definitions of these words. I have even been chastised for “copying and pasting” these definitions from that vile tool of fascism known as “the Dictionary.”
How can one engage in meaningful debate when using wildly different definitions for their words? It is a fool’s errand, which is why definitions are so vital to meaningful dialogue. But where do dictionaries get their definitions from? Do they speak from Authority, arbitrarily dictating definitions to the compliant masses?
No, rather dictionaries report on the commonly used and accepted definitions of words. If a dictionary defined a rock as a “a fruit that grows on a banana tree” and a banana as “solid mass of densely packed minerals”, the creators of said dictionary would be rightly mocked, and nobody would take it seriously.
According to Merriam-Webster, one of the most highly regarded dictionaries, “anarchism” is defined as:
: a belief that government and laws are not necessary
: a political theory holding all forms of governmental authority to be unnecessary and undesirable and advocating a society based on voluntary cooperation and free association of individuals and groups.
This definition doesn’t necessarily dictate whether anarchy is a “good” or “bad” thing, merely that it precludes the concept of “government.” One can certainly envision a society without government where individual rights are respected, as many self-proclaimed anarchists do.
As for the definition of “government”, Merriam-Webster provides this:
: the group of people who control and make decisions for a country, state, etc.
: a particular system used for controlling a country, state, etc.
: the process or manner of controlling a country, state, etc.
Most anarchists will claim that the above definition applies, but must also include the qualification that governments must violate individual rights in order to exist. In their view, anyone who advocates for government at all, even governments formed voluntarily on private property, simply must be created without consent, and must violate individual rights. No explanation is given for this, outside of “this is the way it has been, is, and always shall be.”
At this point, some will then proceed to make arguments against “the State” or “government” as if Wissler is actually advocating for tyrannical government – for systems that do violate individual rights, and do function without the consent of the governed. This is what is known as a “Straw Man” argument. I again turn to that tool of tyranny, Merriam-Webster:
: a weak or imaginary argument or opponent that is set up to be easily defeated
At least among principled libertarians, it is very easy to combat an argument for tyranny. It is not difficult to point out how systems that violate the rights of individuals are in direct opposition to the principles of individual liberty. But even a cursory analysis of the arguments laid out in Shayne Wissler’s essay or our interview will reveal that he is not only opposed to such systems, but vehemently advocates against the typical “minarchist” arguments for coercive systems often found in libertarian circles.
Indeed, Wissler’s ideas fall far outside the “libertarian mainstream.” Upon conducting this interview I was well aware that the ideas would be met harshly by many in the libertarian community, and I welcome the healthy debate surrounding the ideas. I will even admit that the first time I saw the title of his essay, “Against Anarchism”, I scoffed and thought to myself “Oh this one should be easy to refute.”
But I still took the time to analyze Wissler’s actual arguments, instead of immediately lashing out against the arguments that I thought or wished he would make.
If the “liberty movement” is to make any headway in the world, it’s advocates must embrace reasoned dialogue, and learn to reject faulty straw man arguments. Additionally, we must work with the actual definitions of words as they are used in society, not just the definitions that only people who have read the collected works of Murray Rothbard – someone who anyone familiar with this site will know I have been a fan of – will understand.
Consider this a plea – a call for reason and intellectual debate. “Liberty” will never be advanced through the use of confusing definitions or straw man arguments, and any honest advocates for individual liberty should reject them outright.
This article was originally published at Lions of Liberty