Do we really need the state at all?

Gerard Casey, author of Libertarian Anarchy talks to Jason Walsh about liberty, liberals and the need for civil political debate.

Jason Walsh

Topics Books

People who hold controversial views generally come in two kinds: those who keep them to themselves and those who just can’t shut up. Gerard Casey, professor of philosophy at University College Ireland, fits neatly into neither category: although unafraid to speak his mind, Casey doesn’t seek to cause outrage. Why then write a book, Libertarian Anarchy, that provocatively argues that the state is not only unnecessary, but actually illegitimate?

‘I got sick of answering questions’, he says. ‘I found the same questions came up again and again, so I decided to write a book that I could use to answer them.’

The response, as far as I can tell, has been deafening silence, though at the time of writing US publication was still pending and it’s fairly safe to say that anti-government arguments get a more sympathetic reading in America than they do in Europe.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should point out that Casey is a personal friend. In fact, he, very generously, thanks me for some minor proofreading in the acknowledgments to Libertarian Anarchy. That does not mean, however, we agree. I spend more time than I should trying to push him into corners over issues such as healthcare, toll roads and abortion. In fact, trying to trap Casey into accepting the principle of abortion has become something of a hobby of mine in recent months.

When I say we disagree, here is what I mean: I am suspicious of state intervention in people’s lives. Casey, on the other hand, considers the state – all states, actually – to be entirely illegitimate. Libertarian Anarchy begins with precisely this statement: ‘States are criminal organisations. All states, not just the totalitarian or repressive ones. The only possible exceptions to this sweeping claim are those mini-states that are, in effect, swollen bits of private property, such as the Vatican. I intend the statement to be understood literally and not some form of rhetorical exaggeration.’

Strong stuff – and reminiscent of a statue in Monaco commemorating the foundation of the famously wealthy tax-haven statelet. It depicts François Grimaldi dressed as a Franciscan friar, unsheathing a hidden dagger. In 1297, Grimaldi seized Monaco by disguising himself as a monk. His indirect descendants rule the territory to this day. Is Monaco a swollen piece of private property or was it simply founded in theft – or both?

I came to know Casey after hearing him on Irish talk radio. The host, an amiable liberal, seemed puzzled by one of his responses and Casey, laughing slightly, went on to explain he was an anarchist. There were a good few seconds of dead air. I laughed so much I almost rear-ended the car in front of me and decided, there and then, to get in touch with this person and find out more about him.

It turns out that Casey wasn’t always an anarchist. In fact, he was once a straight-down-the-line conservative, best known for his anti-abortion campaigning. He is still against abortion, but on individual-rights grounds rather than purely religious conviction. His political journey was a result of a puzzling philosophical problem.

‘The conversion process seems immediate, but usually it happens over a period of time’, he says. ‘For me, it was a question of the nature of money.’ From working out what money actually was, Casey gradually began to question the basis for authority and ended up deciding that attempting to force people to bend to your will was, at best fruitless, and, at worst, immoral.

Today, libertarians on the one hand, and liberals and the left on the other, seem a million miles apart. It wasn’t always so. In the 1960s, when the liberal government in America was prosecuting the Vietnam war, libertarian Murray Rothbard attempted to build bridges between the New Left and libertarians on the grounds of being anti-war and in favour of personal freedom. Rothbard later retreated from this tactical alliance, but is there room today for such a cross-pollination? Can modern liberalism be saved from itself by a restatement of Enlightenment principles?

‘The traditional idea of “left and right” is a very crude measure but can we get them together? Yes. Are you anti-war? Yes. So am I!’, he says. This doesn’t blind him to the difficulties, though, including the incoherence and shallowness of supposedly deeply-held convictions.

‘Liberals stand for individual rights selectively, as do conservatives. A lot of it is shadow boxing. The left wants liberty in personal morality but wants to control property, whereas the right is the reverse.’

As an anti-state capitalist, much of Casey’s energy, like that of many in his tradition, is directed against government itself. As far as anarchist arguments, of both ‘propertarian’ and ‘non-propertarian’ (think Chomsky) go, they have an obvious appeal: the state is an instrument of power, and a blunt and unresponsive one at that.

Today, though, the state is not quite what it used to be. Instead of directly oppressing people – enslaving them, press-ganging them into war, jailing them for being gay or executing them for minor crimes – modern Western states intrude into people’s lives in much more subtle and sophisticated ways, such as by using health promotion or green politics as forms of social policing. It would be unfair to consider this a blind spot for Casey. It’s not that he can’t see it, it’s just that he doesn’t specifically care, seeing it as little more than the latest form of officialdom’s intrusion into private social relations. This also explains why he is an anarchist and not a libertarian.

‘Minimally, [libertarians] want to see the state reduced, the hardcore libertarian wants it reduced to its core functions: law, courts, police and so on. I’m an anarchist because the argument for reducing the state goes there. In order to stop short of anarchism you have to engage in special pleading’, he says.

Early on in Libertarian Anarchy, Casey states that the book is principally concerned with philosophical anarchism rather than its practicalities. This is perhaps unsurprising for a professor of philosophy, but although the book is not intended as a manual for anarchism he does attempt to systematically work through objections to anti-state thinking.

As unashamed capitalists, most libertarians welcome the outsourcing of state activity. After all, private sector good, public sector bad, right? I put it to Casey that much outsourcing, from hospital cleaning, to the extension of policing powers to private security or Atos’s carrying-out of disability-benefit assessment represent the state refusing to do its job properly, a dereliction of duty. Surprisingly he agreed. ‘This stuff is not coming from a pro-liberty agenda. It’s more like the state is saying: “Let’s just get a cheap substitute in. Truth be told we don’t want to do it, but we can’t give up altogether.”‘

Despite growing campaigns for restrictions on individual behaviour and the normalisation of regulation in personal life, Casey thinks the tide is turning in favour of freedom.

‘I’m very optimistic, actually. The internet allows people to escape from the controls of states. I’m really struck by young people today. If the American election was confined to voters under 30, Ron Paul would be president. Diluted and inconsistent as he may be, his appeal, this old man, is to young people. ‘The state is about 500 years old, the nation state 200 years; it’s historically contingent. I think we’re going to see smaller polities’, he says.

Aren’t a lot of the new libertarians just turbo-Tories, though? Ron Paul, for instance, has quite obviously upped the radical quotient in his speeches since losing the race to be the Republican party’s presidential candidate. Worse still is the motley crew of internet weirdos or rich fantasists who want to build private islands in a kind of capitalist twist on the counterculture’s back-to-the-land ethos.

‘Certainly, yes. Libertarianism attracts more than its fair share of escapists, survivalists and libertines. There are people who think frankness means saying whatever you want to whomever you want at any time. This is just madness. If I offend people I don’t do it deliberately, it’s just the cost of discussion, but broadly speaking, we can be civil to one another’, he says.

Can we though? In Ireland, there have been calls for a civil debate on abortion rights. This seems an unlikely prospect given the fundamental clash at stake. Casey disagrees. ‘People develop hypersensitivity as a political strategy. If you hold [position] ‘A’ and I hold [position] ‘not A’ we necessarily have an argument. I’m not saying you’re stupid or evil’, he says.

Likewise, the quality of internet-based discourse is, in this author’s opinion, frankly appalling and I put it to Casey that this may be an insoluble problem given any kind of real commitment to freedom of speech. For Casey, the answer is to reclaim autonomy and self-governance while also developing a shared culture: ‘Take the Soviet Union pre- and post-1989. The wall comes down and suddenly there’s this moment of euphoria. Then the promised democratic institutions don’t appear. Why? Because the culture is absent. Likewise with the internet, when you have a new medium people often don’t know how to behave…Culture is, by and large, a system of restraints.’

Casey admits that calls for ‘restraint, restriction and limitation’ may sound strange from the mouth of a libertarian, but insists that the central idea remains one of autonomy: ‘The standard liberal or conservative wants restraint to be imposed by a mother or father figure; a mother for liberals and a father for conservatives. I want adults to impose their own restraints. I had a mother and a father, and they were great, but I don’t need them anymore. If we are not to be a nation of idiots [then] we have to develop restraints.’

In truth, I don’t know if Casey is right or wrong. I don’t know where the state should start and end – I worry about the absence of things like universal healthcare, for instance – but Libertarian Anarchy is worth a read at least. If nothing else, it should provoke some interesting thoughts, such as should libertarians and liberals work together on defending individual rights, can the autonomous individual subject be rescued from its veritable army of well-meaning enemies, or, why does the organised left have such an obvious blind spot when it comes to the state?

Jason Walsh is a journalist based in Ireland. Visit his web site here.

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