[Originally published at anti-state.com on December 17, 2001]
In his article In Search of the Antimarx, Bob “Missing Loop” Murphy airs our disagreement over the merits of attempting to convert masses of people to anarcho-capitalism. Murphy characterizes my view fairly in his short summary of it; in another article I explain why I think rational evangelism won’t work. By this I mean simply that people are never going to be persuaded by rational argument to adopt anarcho-capitalism in numbers sufficient to dissolve government. Talk isn’t going to carry the day for us, and neither can force when we are so outnumbered.
But what I want to address here is Murphy’s intent to go beyond rational argument, to advance an anarcho-capitalist agenda by packaging the message.
First of all I think Murphy’s goal is unrealistic, indeed unattainable:
“I think the only hope for a stateless society is a population committed to true voluntarism, that is, to absolute and total freedom.”
Frankly I would despair if I thought this were true. And anyway, if such a population were so committed to freedom there wouldn’t be much reason to worry about limited government because it would work.
A common argument made against anarcho-capitalism is that it requires perfect people, or at least people far more virtuous than the general population is now. Murphy seems to accept this argument. The argument is wrong because, as David Friedman points out, imperfect people behave far more benignly in markets than they do when wielding government:
“I have encountered precisely the same error among libertarians who prefer limited government to anarcho-capitalism. Limited government, they say, can guarantee uniform justice based on objective principles. Under anarcho-capitalism, the law varies from place to place and person to person, according to the irrational desires and beliefs of the different customers that different protection and arbitration agencies must serve.
This argument assumes that the limited government is set up by a population most or all of whose members believe in the same just principles of law. Given such a population, anarcho-capitalism will produce that same uniform, just law; there will be no market for any other. But just as capitalism can accommodate to a diversity of individual ends, so anarcho-capitalism can accommodate to a diversity of individual judgments about justice.
An ideal objectivist society with a limited government is superior to an anarcho-capitalist society in precisely the same sense that an ideal socialist society is superior to a capitalist society. Socialism does better with perfect people than capitalism does with imperfect people; limited government does better with perfect people than anarcho-capitalism with imperfect. And it is better to wear a bikini with the sun shining than a raincoat when it is raining. That is no argument against carrying an umbrella.”
– from Socialism, Limited Government, Anarchy, and Bikinis
in The Machinery of Freedom by David Friedman
The question of course is how to get from here to there. Murphy wants to do it by marketing a message. He admires Marx as a marketer of ideas:
“And you have to hand it to Marx. He sure as hell didn’t lead by example. (He himself was bourgeois and a scoundrel to boot.)
So how did he do it? His writing gave people an entire worldview. Marxism allows you to interpret history, economics, politics virtually everything. And it was all based on a basic human yearning: equality.”
But is equality a basic human yearning? I don’t yearn for it. I’d say the basic human vice Marx played upon was jealousy. And Murphy says it’s “far easier to dislodge an erroneous belief than a correct one”, but then how does one explain the success of Marx? America once had far more limited government and far freer markets but Marx’s false philosophy made great inroads against a more correct philosophy and continues to do so. It’s clear that false premises don’t prevent a philosophy from making great advances. Marxism advanced not by rational argument, not by being correct, but by irrational appeals and systematic incentives.
Murphy is ready to go beyond rational argument and seems to be willing to persuade people on the basis of false premises:
“Or, if you don’t believe in evolution, then (chances are) you’re a believer in one of the major religions. And then of course the popularity of your creed is an example that people can be inspired by the truth as well as by myths.”
To convince religious people that truth can carry the day Murphy invites them to take their own creed as an example. But these creeds are contradictory which means at least some of them are wrong. In fact for any of them to be true most of them must be largely wrong. And since most of these people must be embracing creeds which are largely wrong their own creed is not a valid example of how people can be inspired by truth, quite the opposite. Yet Murphy invites them to accept it as a valid example.
I’m certainly not saying that such an argument cannot persuade many people, Marx demonstrated that false arguments can be very persuasive while appealing to the irrational. I just think such persuasion is worthless for the purpose of getting people to embrace truth, because while it is possible to arrive at a correct conclusion by an invalid argument it is not possible to apprehend truth by such means. I don’t trust someone who has reached a correct conclusion by invalid reasoning because if they’re vulnerable to one invalid argument they’re vulnerable to the next.
Being correct is only an advantage in argument if the audience you’re trying to persuade is competent to grasp a valid argument. The success of Marx’s collectivist philosophy argues very strongly against the idea that Murphy’s chosen audience is sufficiently competent.
To put it bluntly, collectivism can be advanced by “useful idiots” but incompetence can’t usefully advance rational individualism.