Anarchist Illusions
Roy A. Childs, Jr.
(From Liberty Against Power: Essays by Roy A. Childs, Jr., Joan Kennedy Taylor, ed.
(San Francisco: Fox & Wilkes, 1994); pp 179–183.

Editor’s Note by Joan Kennedy Taylor: During the early 1980s, Roy Childs mentioned to some of his friends that he had changed his mind about anarchism, and intended someday to write about the subject at length; exactly when and why this change occurred is unclear. He said to me once that the hostage crisis in Iran was a turning point for him, because it became obvious that when the Iranian students took the hostages, because of the de facto anarchy in that country, there was no one with whom to negotiate for their release; but he didn’t argue the point further. Many limited government libertarians, including myself, feel that their arguments were decisive in changing his mind, but we will never know. When Laissez Faire Books announced in 1988 that Childs would edit The Libertarian newsletter for them, he decided to put his new views on anarchism in the first issue, but neither the article nor the first issue was ever complete — this fragment (which was found in his papers after his death) is as far as he got. What his argument would have been, we will unfortunately never know, but because his views in defense of anarchism have been so influential, it seems only fair to include this tantalizing beginning here.

Editor’s Note by Ronald N. Neff: The typography is as it appears in Liberty Against Power, not, perhaps, as Childs composed the essay.


Many years ago I wrote a little essay published as “Objectivism and the State: An Open Letter to Ayn Rand,” which caused quite a stir. At the time, I was a young libertarian who had become converted to the position I called “free market anarchism,"” and it was my intention to convert Rand to that position; I knew that, through her, her followers would be reached as well.

Things did not exactly work out as planned. In place of the astonished but eager acceptance of my argument — and there was some minor hope on my part for that result — I received notice in my mailbox of the cancellation of my subscription to Ayn Rand’s magazine, The Objectivist. I took my original letter to Ayn Rand and circulated it to a handful of friends and acquaintances, and after making a few minor line changes, published it in a magazine of small circulation.

The reaction astonished me because I received nearly as many letters in response to my argument as the magazine had subscribers. Two letters were favorable, while about two hundred were not. Over the course of the next few years, the position of free market anarchism found more and more acceptance in the libertarian movement, and its enthusiasts easily gave the advocates of limited government a run for their money. I was not the first to advocate free market anarchism, but for a while, at least, I found myself one of its most vocal advocates, writing letters, engaging in public debates, publishing articles (“Anarchism and Justice,” a multi-part series, appeared in the The Individualist; “The Epistemological Basis for Anarchism,” a privately-published essay, was circulated in the thousands; there were others), making speeches, and always returning to print to refute new attempts to provide a justification for limited government.

My last essay on the subject was published as a critique of Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia, published more than ten years ago as “The Invisible Hand Strikes Back,” in the Journal of Libertarian Studies.

I have said that I was not the originator of free market anarchism, and that is indeed true. Murray Rothbard thinks that the original “anarcho-capitalist” was probably Gustav de Molinari, the nineteenth century Belgian economist and follower of the great French libertarian, Frederic Bastiat. At the time I began writing about anarchism, I knew nothing about Molinari. My own mentors were Robert LeFevre, whose doctrine of “autarchy” or “self-rule” caught my fancy as a teenager; and, later, the thinking done by such figures as Morris and Linda Tannehill, authors of the recently-reprinted work The Market for Liberty, and Murray Rothbard, particularly through my acquaintance with one of his associates, the late Wilson Clark.

Nevertheless, I was a tireless propagandist for anarchism, and probably convinced as many people of the legitimacy of the position as anyone else at that time. This was, no doubt, due to the fact that my argument was cast in the form of critiques of the most influential libertarian theorist of the time, Ayn Rand. Her followers were far more numerous than those of any other figure. Her influence was so vast that it easily dwarfed that of anyone else, with the possible exception of Ludwig von Mises, who pretty much stuck to economics and broader issues in the social sciences.

Since writing my critique of Nozick, which had a very favorable reception, I have been asked to expand on some of my views in this area. How would anarchism work? What were my current views on the subject? I regularly ducked the first issue, and anyone familiar with my writings on the subject may notice that I have never written anything about how free market anarchism would work; my published views have been limited to knocking down justifications for government. I ducked the second issue as long as I could, for a very good reason: I had changed my mind, and was not ready to argue my new case.

But I knew that sooner or later I would return to the subject of anarchism. That is the purpose of this essay: to refute myself as well as other anarchists. Why? Because, to paraphrase my open letter to Ayn Rand, I was wrong. I now regard anarchism as incoherent and even dangerous to the libertarian movement.

It will be said that the only issue is the truth or falsity of an idea, and that calling an idea “dangerous” is itself somewhat a “dangerous” mode of thought. But it is my conviction that anarchism functions in the libertarian movement precisely as does Marxism in the international socialist movement: as an incoherent and therefore unreachable goal that inevitably corrupts any attempted strategy to achieve it. I will argue that, as in the case of advocates of a Marxist utopia, libertarians attempting to implement anarchism would find themselves invariably moving in practice toward something very different; something, furthermore, that they never intended. I believe that the end result of their beliefs and actions would horrify many of them if they could see it in advance.

My purpose, then, is twofold: to refute anarchism as a doctrine, to expose it as a fantasy masquerading as an ideology, and to show how in fact it has led too many libertarians away from reality, and, indeed, set them on a collision course with it.

Too often in social or political thinking the unreflective acceptance of an incoherent ideal has led to trouble. We need only look at the often pernicious effects of such ideals as “equality” or “planning” to see how something apparently innocent can lead otherwise well-meaning people into the acceptance of the most absurd proposals and realities imaginable. And sometimes, of course, the proposals and realities have not been merely absurd, but criminal. What crimes have not been committed in the name of equality? And what amount of arbitrary state power has not been sanctioned in the name of state planning of the economy?

But, it will be answered, we have never seen a full-fledged attempt to achieve anarcho-capitalism in the modern world. How can the things be compared? We simply lack the experience that we do in the case of ideals like equality and planning.

True enough, but an incoherent goal pursued with enough diligence and success must always produce unexpected and even shocking outcomes. Equality and planning were incoherent goals. So too, I will argue, is anarcho-capitalism. It has become a standard libertarian argument that the malicious implications of equality and planning are indeed implicit in any sustained, rational analysis of the actual meanings of the concepts involved. If we look at what is involved in the ideal of equality, we must be able to discern that it is either perniciously arbitrary (why only equality of wealth? what would “equality of opportunity” or “equality of outcomes” actually entail?) or that it can only be achieved by the most extreme and unacceptable means. And if we examine the notion of “comprehensive planning of the economy,” we find similar questions and implications. We would find that it would be necessary to accept not only a vast concentration of power in the hands of the state, but also a destruction of wealth on such a large scale as to render whole populations destitute.

Some people might not shrink from accepting such consequences, but they would probably be in the minority, which is where psychopaths properly belong.

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