Archive Civic Polity Economics Steven Wedgeworth

Anarcho-Capitalism and the Restriction of Freedom

So this year’s presidential campaign has been nuts. That’s hardly profound to say. One of the things that caught my eye, however, was the very odd phenomenon of former Ron Paul supporters moving to Trump. On the face of it, this makes little sense. Ron Paul was a sort of libertarian purist, or at least an “old right” advocate in the vein of Robert A. Taft. Trump, on the other hand, is a Rockefeller Republican at best. However, there are some points of common ground, though these are mostly not on the political level (properly speaking). Both Paul and Trump supposedly represent an outside challenge to the political establishment. Both can be co-opted in the service of “the revolution.” And both have a sympathetic relationship with the alt-Right. But there’s one more odd point of agreement, and one which raises some troubling questions. This would be immigration.

There’s a lot to say about the topic of immigration, and there is a legitimate debate to be had over its policies. But Ron Paul himself typically held to balanced immigration position. He wanted borders, and he wanted current immigration law to be enforced. But he also favored legal immigration and showed little interest in government-police jeopardizing privacy in order to seize and deport offenders. He would prefer that the various incentives offered to illegal workers and employers who hire them be done away with, thus leaving the problem to more or less self-correct. As is well known, Trump espouses a rather different view.

Nevertheless, some of the more exotic Ron Paul supporters are now rallying around Trump precisely because of his position on immigration. This left me curious, and it caused me to do a little searching around. What I found was really telling. In this speech, you can read Lew Rockwell’s argument against open borders. He draws on his favorite champions of Austrian economics, particularly Murray Rothbard and Hans-Hermann Hoppe. Amazingly,1 the central argument is that immigration problems should be solved by the dissolution of all “public” property and space in favor of exhaustive privatization.

To explain this further, Rockwell first summarizes Rothbard and then quotes him directly:

And here Murray posed the problem just as I have: in a fully private-property society, people would have to be invited onto whatever property they traveled through or settled on.

If every piece of land in a country were owned by some person, group, or corporation, this would mean that no person could enter unless invited to enter and allowed to rent or purchase property. A totally privatized country would be as closed as the particular property owners desire. It seems clear, then, that the regime of open borders that exists de facto in the U.S. and Western Europe really amounts to a compulsory opening by the central state, the state in charge of all streets and public land areas, and does not genuinely reflect the wishes of the proprietors.

Notice the foundational argument here. “If every piece of land in a country were owned by some person, group, or corporation…” This is what Rockwell calls a “fully private-property society.” All property, roads, and even green-space would be privately owned, and thus no one could access or travel across it without permission. Rockwell shows how this solves the immigration problem in this way, “In an anarcho-capitalist world, with all property privately owned, ‘immigration’ would be up to each individual property owner to decide.” It would all be a matter of contracts. Done.

This argument tells us a whole lot more than what anarcho-capitalists think about immigration. It tells us how they prioritize rights in the first place. “Individual liberty” is the chief end, but the best and primary means to secure it is the device of property rights. In fact, property rights are so effective that they can in fact do the work that is currently being done by civil magistrates. This is what makes the anarcho-capitalist position unique. The logic of pure capitalism replaces politics as such.

Early in the speech, Rockwell laid out this hierarchy of rights. Even though he does not believe in the legitimacy of states, he does not want “open borders” because that would simply follow an abstract principle of “freedom.” He does not believe in freedom in the abstract. He believes in freedom only in specific and concrete forms, and these can only ever exist within the bounds of private property:

Some libertarians have assumed that the correct libertarian position on immigration must be “open borders,” or the completely unrestricted movement of people. Superficially, this appears correct: surely we believe in letting people go wherever they like!

But hold on a minute. Think about “freedom of speech,” another principle people associate with libertarians. Do we really believe in freedom of speech as an abstract principle? That would mean I have the right to yell all during a movie, or the right to disrupt a Church service,  or the right to enter your home and shout obscenities at you.

What we believe in are private property rights. No one has “freedom of speech” on my property, since I set the rules, and in the last resort I can expel someone. He can say whatever he likes on his own property, and on the property of anyone who cares to listen to him, but not on mine.

The same principle holds for freedom of movement. Libertarians do not believe in any such principle in the abstract. I do not have the right to wander into your house, or into your gated community, or into Disneyworld, or onto your private beach, or onto Jay-Z ‘s private island. As with “freedom of speech,” private property is the relevant factor here. I can move onto any property I myself own or whose owner wishes to have me. I cannot simply go wherever I like.

Now if all the parcels of land in the whole world were privately owned, the solution to the so-called immigration problem would be evident. In fact, it might be more accurate to say that there would be no immigration problem in the first place. Everyone moving somewhere new would have to have the consent of the owner of that place.

This is a very telling line of argument. In the name of “freedom,” the actual result is full privatization– of everything. “All parcels of land in the whole world.” But what does this immediately do to freedom? It restricts it within the bounds of one’s own property. “Free speech” only exists on one’s own property. As Rockwell states, “No one has ‘freedom of speech’ on my property, since I set the rules, and in the last resort I can expel someone. He can say whatever he likes on his own property, and on the property of anyone who cares to listen to him, but not on mine.” So you can say what you want on your property. On my property, however, you can only say what I want.

And the way this expands to immigration is to simply apply it to travel. No one has the freedom to travel anywhere unless they own the property upon which they are traveling or have appropriately contracted with its owners. Thus all roads should be toll roads. All sidewalks should be toll-walks. All neighborhoods should be gated-communities. Good fences make good neighbors, and there will be fences everywhere, literally.

Now the argument should seem incredible. This brand of “libertarianism” has actually succeeded in taking away all freedom except property rights. Those with lots of property will enjoy lots of freedom, but those with little or no property will have little or no freedom. They can improve their standing by acquiring more property.

Let’s apply this to our current world. As soon as you leave your driveway, you must immediately pay a toll. To walk on the sidewalk, you’ll need to have made some commercial transaction. You will not be free to move off your own property until you have done so. Is this really freedom?

“Ah,” the anarcho-capitalist will reply. “Nothing has changed at all. You are simply being forced to see your bill up front. This is the same thing that happens with taxation. The only difference is now you know about it.”

That has an initial punch to it. But it isn’t quite true, and we all know it. Taxation does “pay the bill,” but it does not do so on a specific point-by-point basis, and it does not do so with the logic of profit in mind. It does so with the common good as its end. And though political freedom is always a complicated topic, civil governments recognize that freedom can take various forms. There is a “freedom to” engage in an activity, as well as a “freedom from” being prevented from engaging in an activity. There are various conditions which must be maintained in order to preserve this freedom (ie. don’t let things fall into chaos), and taxation is the “price,” not simply for this or that set of actions within society, but for maintaining the society as a whole. Thus the challenge of civil liberty is to secure the most liberty for the most people in the most fair way. It is not simply to open a sort of liberty auction where those with the most means are allowed to secure the most liberty and those with the least are left to fend for themselves. The challenge is to provide a just freedom for the whole.

In fact, the idea of “public space” is not that it is “owned by the government,” but rather that it is owned by the people. Thus its logic is closer to that of the worker-owned cooperative. When we pay our taxes, we are paying our own bills for products that we use. Yes this can be abused by corruption and foolish policies, and yes we need to pay close attention to who gets to influence the decisions. But it isn’t a commercial transaction that’s going on, and it shouldn’t be. It’s a political action, and there is a difference. We can travel on public roads because they are our roads. We can walk on public sidewalks because they are our sidewalks.

One place where this is absolutely essential is political dissent. As any pro-life activist knows, public property is necessary for free speech. We may not protest Planned Parenthood on Planned Parenthood’s property. So we must protest them on the sidewalks. This is why the term “sidewalk counselor” was coined. If you want to stop a person from having an abortion at the abortion clinic, you must remain on the sidewalk and communicate from there. On the sidewalk you have the right to stand your ground. On Planned Parenthood’s property you do not. The same is true for any protest or demonstration. Whether it’s a sidewalk, a road, a state building, or a university, if you want to fight the power, you need public space.

Abortion clinics themselves understand this and often take measures to insulate themselves. The abortion clinic in my town actually did commission a private street to be build, and so no one can protest on that street. The police will be called, and you will be asked to move to the sidewalk. Many Planned Parenthood clinics are located in strip-malls or shopping centers, which are privately owned, so that protesters cannot get close. This is all done on purpose because they understand the logic of the law.

Imagine the anarcho-capitalist paradise, however. Now all roads are private. All property is private. Where can you protest? You can only protest in places that will allow you to protest. In other words, you will not be allowed to protest at any location which is opposed to you. You can protest your friends, until they’ve had enough. Then you’ll just have to protest yourself, inside your own house.

Is this really freedom? Of course not.

Anarcho-capitalism isn’t “libertarian” in any meaningful sense. It’s really privatarian. The difference is analogous to that of touring Europe and touring EPCOT Center. They look alike, but one is made up entirely of facades.

And, getting even more realistic, since it would not be possible to simply hit the “restart” button on society, any movement towards this privatarianism would either simply let those who currently have more private property retain the greater leverage and restrict the rights of those under them, or it would employ some sort of strong executive figure to distribute the property as he saw fit. But you could trust him to use dispassionate market analysis to come to his conclusions. There’s no need to worry. Has the business world ever failed you before?

Of course, this is all a long way removed from Donald Trump. He’s not really going to do any of this. But he is giving a voice to these kinds of arguments. Perhaps though, that’s a virtue. It’s good for things to come to light. While the current set of “mainstream” political options is unfairly limited and unimaginative, we are learning that a frightening amount of alternative politics is unrealistic and downright inhumane. We need to do better.

We have to.

  1. Ok, it’s not amazing if you are familiar with the general logic of anarcho-capitalism. Private property is their skeleton key, opening every door and solving every problem. It’s only amazing in this case because of its extremely outlandish implications.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the Rector of Christ Church Anglican in South Bend, Indiana. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a founding member of the Davenant Institute.

3 replies on “Anarcho-Capitalism and the Restriction of Freedom”

There’s a better alternative. Geolibertarianism, or Georgism, stands for liberty in all aspects of human endeavor except for real property (specifically land, not improvements), which is held under tenancy from the state or a public entity. Everyone can profit from investments that they make in construction or improvement, but not from the monopoly rents that accrue because of investments by other people or the state that make a location a more sought-after place to live.

There are many points in this post that I have different feelings about. First, your point about the restart button is the biggest stumbling block to an-caps I can see. Becoming an anarchy is definitely the hardest part.

Second, concerning public space, I am curious about your thoughts on eminent domain. I am not saying public space must always be created by taking it from someone (though this is probably true), but what about when it is? What if the gov can use this property for a “greater good” than the current owner? That seems ripe for tyranny.

Finally, is your freedom limited by the fact that if you want to eat, you have to convince someone to give you some food (and probably give them money in exchange). Why no public food? Or to bring it closer home to the presidential election, is your freedom limited by the fact that you have to pay for healthcare/education?

I came to your website because I saw you talking on Twitter about the demise of the great blog-dom in Reformed-dom so I’m hoping you’ll respond.


Sorry for taking so long to reply. I’ve had a lot going on, yadda yadda yadda.

The relationship between public space and eminent domain is tricky. I’m mostly against eminent domain, but this is nearly always in regard to the govt. seizing private property. Historically, however, lots of property was not privately owned and never was. This is particularly true with Western development. It also seems that the act of incorporating cities would require some sort of voluntary donation of public property in order to achieve the goal. I wouldn’t understand the preservation of certain kinds of lands not yet owned, nor the voluntary giving of land to public use, as eminent domain.

As to the “limitations” of freedom, there are natural and constructed limitations. All humans have the “limitation” that they have to do something to acquire food– farm, hunt, or buy. This is not a political problem. It’s just reality. However, people, groups, and systems can arrange and multiple unreasonable and unjust obstacles to one’s ability to acquire their food, and this would be a violation of right. So I support certain kinds of anti-monopoly laws.

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