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  • Jesse Spafford

Javier Milei's anarcho-capitalism is incoherent

a blue and white striped flag, representing Argentina
Photo by Angelica Reyes on Unsplash

In a surprising turn of events, Javier Milei, a self-described “anarcho-capitalist,” has been declared the winner of Argentina’s recent presidential election. It’s a notable outcome, as there are few anarchists of any stripe involved in electoral politics, and certainly none that have been elected president.

However, many anarchists will find Milei’s success aggravating. Historically, the anarchist movement has been composed of libertarian socialists who oppose private property, markets, and the inequality that capitalism produces. Thus, Milei becoming the public face of anarchism threatens to mislead the public about what most anarchists believe. Further, the rise of anarcho-capitalism poses a philosophical challenge to egalitarian anarchists: are their anti-capitalist commitments well-founded, or is there an irreconcilable tension between libertarianism and socialism that renders anarcho-capitalism a more coherent moral position?

In my new book (available by open access here), I argue at length that egalitarian anarchism is, in fact, a coherent (and plausible) moral view. Core libertarian commitments actually support the rejection of private property and markets. In what follows, I’ll lay out a quick argument for this conclusion.

It will be helpful to start with an account of anarcho-capitalism. It is best understood as a pair of moral views, one about the legitimacy of the state and one about the just distribution of resources. With respect to the former, suppose that a state enacts a law prohibiting skateboarding. If the state is legitimate, that means that everyone within its territory now has a moral obligation refrain from this activity. However, anarcho-capitalists—and anarchists more generally—deny that any existing state has this power to oblige. On their view, there is no obligation to obey the law and, thus, a citizen of the hypothetical state above would do nothing wrong by skateboarding.

This doesn’t mean that people should never comply with the law. Rather, there are many cases where they have an independent reason to do what the law demands. For example, it is illegal to kill people at random, and anarchists will affirm that everyone is, indeed, obliged to refrain from such killing. However, this obligation does not exist because of the law; it is a natural duty that everyone would have irrespective of what the state demanded. Thus, while the law against killing proscribes the correct thing, it provides people with no additional reasons to not kill beyond those they would have absent the state.

One popular reason for endorsing this anarchist conclusion is the consent theory of legitimacy. To illustrate this theory, consider the case where your neighbor declares that you must mow her lawn tomorrow. Are you now morally obliged to do this? Seemingly not. By contrast, suppose that you had previously promised her that you would do one chore for her this week of her choosing. In this latter case, it does seem like you have an obligation to mow her lawn. These cases suggest that you are obligated to obey someone only if you have consented to obey them. This would apply not just to next-door neighbors, but also your neighbors who compose the state. In other words, the state has the power to oblige you only if you have agreed to comply with its edicts. However, given that most of us have not actually consented in this way, the state lacks to power to oblige—i.e., it is illegitimate.

The second anarcho-capitalist commitment—the one that distinguishes anarcho-capitalists from other anarchists—is its endorsement of a libertarian theory of property rights. This theory holds that all natural resources (e.g., land, water, trees, etc.) start out unowned. Individuals are then able to convert these resources into private property, thereby gaining a new set of rights over the appropriated resource(s). These moral rights include claims against others using the resource, a power to waive these claims, and a power to transfer these ownership rights to others. For example, a person who appropriates a field would acquire a claim right that others refrain from walking across that field, tilling its soil, building a house on it, etc. Everyone then has an obligation to refrain from these actions, where any use of the appropriator’s field would wrong her.

In short, on the anarcho-capitalist picture of the moral world, you have no obligation to obey the law, as you have never consented to be governed. At the same time, you are obliged to refrain from trespassing on or redistributing people’s holdings. This is because those holdings are acquired private property, and property owners have a right against you using their belongings. However, these two views are incompatible: if legitimacy requires consent, then so does the establishment of private property rights. And, given that no one has consented to others acquiring property, it follows that no one has property rights of the kind anarcho-capitalists posit.

To see why property acquisition requires consent, consider the nature of the power possessed by legitimate states. If a state is legitimate, it has the power to impose obligations on anyone who occupies its territory, either now or in the future. In other words, it can impose conditional obligations of the following form: if someone is within its claimed region, then she has an obligation to comply with its edicts. For example, when the state issues a law that forbids alcohol consumption, that means that you are obliged to refrain from drinking if you are within its territory.

Consider, now, the person who owns some patch of land. Her ownership gives her a right against you using her land—i.e., you have an obligation to refrain from entering it. Additionally, she has the power to waive this right/obligation and thereby permit your entry. Further, she also has the power to waive this right/obligation conditional on you acting in some way. She might, for example, grant you entry conditional on you refraining from drinking alcohol while there. And, importantly, this conditional permission implies a conditional obligation: if you come on her land, you are obligated to refrain from drinking alcohol.

But notice that this is exactly the same power possessed by legitimate states! In both cases some agent (the state; the property owner) has a power to impose obligations on others conditional on them being within some geographic region (the state’s territory; the owner’s land). So, if anarchists are correct and the state can acquire this power only if all the bound parties consent to this acquisition, then, seemingly, would-be owners can also only acquire this power—which is to say, acquire private property—if everyone else consents to this acquisition. But, of course, no one has actually consented this way. The consistent anarchist must deny both the legitimacy of the state and the existence of private property. Contrary to President Milei, one can be an anarchist, or one can be a capitalist, but not both.

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