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Why True Conservatism Means Anarchy

“I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided; and that is the lamp of experience. I know of no way of judging of the future but by the past.” These words are Patrick Henry’s, uttered in the course of his famous oration known for its powerful closing words “give me liberty or give me death.” Although Henry probably did not intend it as a sociopolitical axiom, the Anglo-American conservative tradition has adopted it as such. Conservatives rightly look to the past to influence their views of the future. Change in the basic structure of society’s institutions is inherently perilous, and must be guided by the “lamp of experience” lest reform lose its way.

But experience accumulates as time marches on. Proposed changes to public life that seem radical and dangerous in one era can embody wisdom and stewardship in another. Applied conservatism is nothing less than continual constitutional craftsmanship. And in that context, “constitution” refers not to whatever is formally drawn up in a document, but the actual procedures and practices that comprise a society’s public sphere.

In this spirit, I propose a position that seems extraordinary, but I am convinced is vindicated by historical experience: the state is a fundamentally anti-conservative force, and in order to preserve the good, true, and beautiful things in society, it’s got to go. In short, I argue that conservatives should seriously consider anarchism.

I realize such a position seems absurd, at least on its surface. Conservatism has long held that the existing political order deserves respect precisely because it is the result of custom, habit, and experience. Massive changes in basic social institutions almost always create chaos. How then can one be both conservative and anarchist?


First, let’s reflect on the nature of conservatism. Its master theoretician remains Russell Kirk, the founder of post-war American conservatism. I am fond of this Kirk quote: “The attitude we call conservatism is sustained by a body of sentiments, rather than by a system of ideological dogmata. It is almost true that a conservative may be defined as a person who thinks himself such. The conservative movement or body of opinion can accommodate a considerable diversity of views on a good many subjects, there being no Test Act or Thirty-Nine Articles of the conservative creed.”

Thus conservatism is really a habit of mind or orientation of sentiment. It is a way of thinking about man, society, and the relationship between the two. It has much more to say about how we treat these topics than what we say about them. It would be wrong to conclude that any position can be conservative so long as it is theorized in the “right” way. But it nonetheless remains true that conservatism is primarily a modifier, an adjective. This is why the phrase “conservative liberal” need not be a contradiction in terms. In fact, many of the greatest thinkers in the conservative tradition—Acton, Tocqueville, even Burke himself—are best classified under this label.

Now let’s consider anarchy. Kirk had this to say about that particular form of social organization: “When every person claims to be a power unto himself, then society falls into anarchy. Anarchy never lasts long, being intolerable for everyone, and contrary to the ineluctable fact that some persons are more strong and more clever than their neighbors. To anarchy there succeeds tyranny or oligarchy, in which power is monopolized by a very few.” Thus anarchy is equated with lawlessness. It is obvious, then, that conservatives cannot embrace a social organization that repudiates all governance institutions. Such institutions are necessary and proper to constrain man’s baser impulses and channel his potentially destructive passions towards the common good.

But which institutions? There are a myriad of ways human societies can be governed. In fact, for most of human history, societies were not governed by states as we currently know them. The word “state,” meaning a unitary actor that embodies the formal apparatus of government, probably originated with Machiavelli. Prior to the rise of the state, which began during the Renaissance but reached its culmination with the end of the Thirty Years’ War in the mid-17th century, Europe was governed by several authorities whose jurisdiction was fractured, overlapping, and concurrent. The polylegal system of the High Middle Ages, in which the authority of kings, local nobility, trade guilds, free cities, and the Roman Catholic Church competed and often checked the abuses of each other, is an important example and one that should be of obvious interest to conservatives.

Thus an anarchist is not one who opposes law and order. Nor is an anarchist a violent revolutionary. An anarchist opposes the specific institution that claims the right to provide these important social goods: the state. And a conservative anarchist opposes the state on the grounds that it, by its nature, is hostile to the goods and practices necessary not only for law and order, but also for a flourishing associational life on the part of its citizenry. Conservative anarchism is not a contradiction in terms, but a recognition that conservative goals are systematically disfavored by modern institutions of formal government.

Establishing this claim requires digging in to what makes a state a state. Many have quibbled with Max Weber’s famous definition; none have proposed a better one. The state is the entity that claims a monopoly on the legitimate use of coercion within a specific geographical territory. The monopoly aspect is crucial. Precisely because the state is sovereign, both de facto and de jure, whoever captures the state is in a position to affect all other social institutions and practices. This is not to claim that political fiat can instantly re-order civil society. Instead it is the recognition that the state, by legally favoring some interests within its jurisdiction while disfavoring others, tilts the playing field such that, over time, the favored interests gain wealth, power, and prestige, while the disfavored interests lose it.

What interests will have a comparative advantage at capturing the state? Especially in democratic societies, political coalitions whose goal is to liquidate existing orders and put new ones in their place will be more adept at getting and keeping power. For one, liquidating existing orders provides access to material wealth that can be redistributed to the supporters of the political coalition. But the sources of wealth do not have to be material. Political movements organized to diminish the status of existing cultural institutions, such as those of traditional religions, also provide benefits to those movements’ supporters. Status is zero-sum: if cultural mores change such that traditionalists are seen as supporting an outdated way of life, while radical innovators are seen as the champions of justice and progress, then the latter will have acquired a benefit from political organization, one that in many contexts is seen as more valuable than mere mammon.

This explains why the state is almost always at the forefront of social innovation. Precisely because of its monopoly on force, it is the perfect tool for radical reformers to employ as a means to advance their social engineering projects. As I have argued elsewhere [1]:

Historically, there has been no more radical…innovator and destroyer of intermediary institutions than the state. From the state-building projects of early modernity, to the absolutist periods in England and on the Continent, to nationalist aspirations in the late nineteenth century and the totalitarian regimes of the early twentieth, the state has been singularly hostile to the primary institutions and folkways that constitute a nation and are the proper objects of its primary loyalty. …It was the state, and the massive force at its disposal, that was ultimately responsible for the terrible social leveling that has occurred in some form since the French Revolution. It was the state that tried, and often succeeded, at erasing any other sources of man’s loyalty, rendering him as a mere cog in the social machine, with no value or dignity except that derived from utility to the state. It took Constant’s “liberty of the ancients” and stripped it of its few redeeming graces, creating an engine of death and destruction the likes of which the world had never seen.

Conservatives have gradually come around to two troubling conclusions. The first is that, over time, they lose and progressives win. At best, conservatives temporarily stall progressives in their dismantling projects, but even when progressives win slowly, they are still winning. The second is that the Overton window [2] shifts left with each passing generation, meaning conservatives are left scrambling to re-package their arguments in a form that is publicly acceptable, while progressives enjoy normative and cultural continuity. Given these facts, it’s no wonder that conservatives are left wondering why they can’t seem to hold the line, let alone advance.

While not sufficient, a necessary part of the explanation is that the state is constitutionally hostile to conservatism. This may not have been evident in 1648 or 1783. But it is now. For the sake of preserving ordered liberty and protecting inherited faith and folkways, conservatives should reject the state’s legitimacy. Failure to do so is fighting a war on the enemy’s terms.

Alexander William Salter is an assistant professor in the Rawls College of Business, and the Comparative Economics Research Fellow at the Free Market Institute at Texas Tech University. His scholarly and popular writings can be found at his website www.awsalter.com [3].

58 Comments (Open | Close)

58 Comments To "Why True Conservatism Means Anarchy"

#1 Comment By Ed On March 13, 2019 @ 10:35 am

A look at present-day stateless societies doesn’t do much to affirm anarchism. Somalia is supposedly one. Early 20th century China had a few similarities to what’s here presented as the medieval model — weak and competing central governments struggling with largely independent warlords, local nobility in power but uncertain as to who was above them — it wasn’t pretty.

I don’t think medieval Europe was anarchist, and if it was poly-whatever, it was because a general framework — Christian, monarchical, aristocratic — was agreed to. It wasn’t questioned but it allowed for some conflict, with nobles and bishops pushing back against kings, and cities and guilds pushing back against kings and nobles and bishops. Once the framework is questioned, you can’t go back to that system. You need to find fixity and certainty in another way, and designating one authority as sovereign seems to be the way it was done.

But thinking about “the state” as something unified and monolithic obscures the way things really work. Ideas of partial or incomplete sovereignty have been present in America since the beginning. Even today we have at least three branches of government, at least three layers of governing authority and at least two parties. Or consider J.K. Galbraith’s idea of “countervailing power” where big government, big business and big labor check each other. It hasn’t worked that way for a long time and never really did, but it is true that different forces and influences are at work within the state. It’s not simply a monolith imposed upon us from without. In some ways, divided sovereignty is still with us (though it doesn’t look that way on tax day).

#2 Comment By JoS. S. Laughon On March 13, 2019 @ 1:17 pm

Read Dr Keeley’s work on stateless, tribalistic societies in his War Before Civilization. The male death rates from violence were astronomic, and were dramatically higher than anything seen in the last 100 years, even during WWI and WWII.

Anarchy isn’t conservatism, it’s just barbarism.

#3 Comment By JMWB On March 13, 2019 @ 3:02 pm

Oh boy, I can’t wait to live in a corrupt, possibly violent state of anarchy.

#4 Comment By mike On March 13, 2019 @ 6:45 pm

For several generations, this has been regarded as a quaint idea held by charming eccentrics (on the rare occasions when it’s been thought of at all), but
we MUST eliminate the State and restore the Victorian Constitution: Rule-of-Law upheld by an hereditary (mostly ceremonial) Christian guardian class.
The British Empire was the free-est, most prosperous group of countries, and the greatest force for good in world history.
It’s not by coincidence that they had no State (as we understand the word today) other than the Navy and Foreign Office – mostly operating overseas and entirely focussed on dealing with foreigners.
Elimination of the State has become essential for the survival of Civilisation and the human race itself because technology has put the State within reach of omniscience and omnipotence. It can no longer be permitted to exist since it is just too lethal a threat to our survival.
(Christian aristocracy is the best possible option – the lottery of birth and high levels of wealth and status. This makes them – as a class – the least corruptible group. The lottery of birth ensures a high percentage of non-psychopaths, in contrast to political systems which involve power-seeking. Such systems select from a pool of the most amoral, corrupt, inhuman maniacs, and then distill those down to the one-percent of one-percent of one-percent – the anthro-demons, the most vicious twisted monsters in the human species.
We witness these creatures in action every day – a never-ending horror-film.

#5 Comment By Arnold I. Reeves On March 15, 2019 @ 4:03 am

Every now and then I think that the American Right’s chattering classes might be about to grow out of kindergarten. You know, might be about to get their views of government from Aristotle and Aquinas instead of Ayn Rand.

Then I see an article like this. There is not a single European right-winger, however rock-ribbed and justifiably impatient with SJW virtue-signaling, who could read even this article’s title – never mind its contents – and draw any conclusion except: yep, the loonies really have taken over the American asylum.

Oh, except maybe Anders Breivik. Maybe he could read it with approval. But most people place little trust in Breivik’s aesthetic judgment, however spectacular his authorial fluency.

As I write these words, it is the state and the state alone whose representatives (in the shape of police officers) have intervened in the city of Christchurch to prevent the body-count of 40 corpses from being even more appalling than it is. Pampered American anarchists are welcome to try and defend their ideology to New Zealanders right now.

#6 Comment By Edith Aint On March 15, 2019 @ 12:49 pm

To everyone complaining about the “barbarism” and “death toll” of a stateless society: this is what we NEED. I’m no misanthrope, but we humans are just another animal, and every animal has its day. Our day is coming to an end. We as a species neither need nor deserve a “stable” or “peaceful” society, no more than the dinosaurs before us.

Conservative and liberal is indeed a false dichotomy. We are ALL the architects of our own destruction, and our destruction is only a matter of time. This cycle of birth and death is necessary, inevitable, and beautiful. But certainly painful at times. Preventing our inevitable demise is no excuse for statist authority, simply a tool of false security for those too weak or stupid to pursue their own survival.

#7 Comment By Dr. Diprospan On March 15, 2019 @ 1:08 pm

I can not agree that “conservatives lose and progressives win”. Conservatism was and is a concept with great potential.
On our planet, 95% of organisms that chose a new path of development died due to being affected by new damaging factors, but 5% who managed to work out and remember a good innovation trait could break into a new stage of development: as a human among animals, as flowering plants among other plants.
95% of organisms that chose the conservative model of existence are doomed to perish due to their inability to adapt to a changing environment, but 5% of paleoconservatives who have found a super-stable attribute can live without changing for hundreds of millions of years like ants and billions of years like blue-green alga.
Only God knows who, how, in what direction will begin to move but the number that chose one or another path determines the quality of the solved problem.
The ants rejected the brain and remained ants. Man chose the brain and became a man.
Only experiment and practice will show which of these two will live in the future.
It is likely that man invented the state as an ax or a wheel – for practice.
The proposal to reject the state’s legitimacy is like giving up human practice and experience.
People with poor eyesight or hearing know better than others what a lack of a clear picture of the world is. Not a denial of the state device but the production of such devices as glasses, a microscope, a telescope, a hearing aid attracts people.
People tend not to anarchy, but to a clear picture of the world.
This is what the American Conservative does successfully.

#8 Comment By Rick Steven D. On March 15, 2019 @ 10:39 pm

Edith Aint:

WOW! I can’t tell whether you sound more like D.H. Lawrence after The Great War, or Alpha, the ruthless female leader of The Whisperers in the current season of The Walking Dead. Mind-bending stuff! Thanks.