What’s In A Name?

The terms anarcho-capitalist and anarchist are quite common to libertarians. We hear the terms and think of such figures as Lysander Spooner and Murray Rothbard. Yet to the general populace, these words represent something very different. The terms harken back to history classes where students learned about the self-proclaimed Anarchists who threw bombs, engaged in violence, and had a much-different view towards the free market.  In a lighter sense, the majority grew to accept that to be an anarchist is to experience youthful phases of rebellion against society and “the man”. This is drastically different from the libertarian view, where an individual who identifies as an anarchist or an ancap is one who believes in a completely voluntary society with  no government coercion.

While I don’t claim either one of those titles, this is certainly a case in which libertarians need to play a better semantics game as it relates to outreach to the general public. The second that one identifies themselves politically as an anarchist or an ancap in a conversation with a non-political acquaintance, one of two things will happen: either the subject will be changed or a deluge of confused questions will be asked; in my experience, the former tends to happen more often. Anarchism has such violent connotations; do we really want ourselves associated with that, even if we attach the term capitalism?

There are much better terms to use to describe the belief in a free society or laissez-faire economics. Relying instead on the political label of voluntaryist may require some explanation, but doesn’t create preconceived notions. Explaining first and foremost that you are an advocate of a free-market economy (a real one without impediments created by the Federal leviathan) is also another solution to the semantics problem that we find ourselves facing.

The general public finds itself more cynical of the status quo every day and is looking for another answer out there. Terms need to evoke a certain kind of hope, and that can only be accomplished by using self-descriptions that haven’t already been manipulated to represent a negative, or dangerous, point of view. I’d argue that even capitalism is a bad term. It was first defined by Marx in Das Kapital and has always had a negative connotation: one that evokes the image of the fat executive smoking a cigar while stomping on the poor. Furthermore, the Left claims that the bailouts and Keynesian economics “saved capitalism”, an exemplar of oxymoronical statements. If the bailouts and Keynesian economics saved capitalism, I wonder what their notions of real central planning are.

It’s not hard to be savvy about your terminology if you know who you are talking to. Efforts must be made in every way possible to win the hearts and minds of the public, especially in terms of viability of libertarian candidates. When I run for office, I don’t want people to be associating me with Gavrilo Princip just because someone mentioned to them that they were a libertarian who had anarchist leanings. Likewise I assume that libertarians in business or the non-profit sector of the economy would rather not have their productivity associated with destruction and violence.

Make a conscious effort to use new terms, or only use self-descriptors such as “anarchist” or “anarcho-capitalist” amongst other libertarians, where they will be understood for what they mean. It will make a world of difference in the long run, and could contribute to living in a much more free society one day.

In Defense of Zoning Laws

Should a local government be able to tell property owners what they can and cannot do with their property?  I’d argue that in some cases, yes. In certain areas, reasonable restrictions should be made on what property can be used for. Even in an ideal anarcho-capitalist society, zoning would still exist in that if I didn’t like what my neighbor was doing, or if their behavior was adversely affecting me, I could potentially sue them, enacting a form of private zoning on the individual level. This, in part, is the argument for why pollution would be much less of a problem if everything was privately owned.

Take, for instance, the example of a friend of mine invoking the use of zoning laws for the safety of her community. There are those who have been staging horse races on a piece of land that is inadequate for that type of event, and the runoff resulting from such an event could affect her community’s drinking water. Do I find zoning laws acceptable in this case? Absolutely. As a community that is being affected by such activities, they have every right to make and enforce such laws.

Can zoning laws be abused by businesses to protect themselves from competition? Absolutely.  They have been invoked to defend entrenched interests. But zoning laws in regards to the case I’m referring to are necessary in the name of public safety and fiscal responsibility. Why should all of the taxpayers in the aforementioned community be forced to provide the infrastructure that would be necessary to host a spectator event like a horse race? Why should they be forced to repair the existing infrastructure or natural resources if they were to be damaged due  to their inadequacy, or vulnerability, as a result of this event?

Local zoning laws also give people the option to vote with their feet if they don’t like the laws in their jurisdiction. It is in the community’s best interest  to make zoning laws in regards to the situation within the locality and the type of business that can exist, given the infrastructure and geographical features. In the example I’ve mentioned, the horse track potentially puts the community in danger, given the inadequate infrastructure, the aquifer from which they get their water, and other external considerations that have a greater impact on the residents – impacts that do not solely affect the individual property.

As pragmatic libertarians, we should seek to see small localities empowered to make their own decisions, even if we disagree with those decisions. Ideology oftentimes blinds some people to necessities; until we have a working anarcho-capitalist society, zoning laws should exist, provided that it can be proven with multiple examples that public safety is endangered. Broad definitions are subject to abuse  by those who want to defend their market share, thus care need be taken to ensure that only the people directly affected have the say. While this seems somewhat idealistic, it is no more so than presuming that anarcho-capitalism will take root within our lifetime.

As Saul Alinsky said in his seminal work Rules for Radicals:

“As an organizer I start from where the world is, as it is, not as I would like it to be. That we accept the world as it is does not in any sense weaken our desire to change it into what we believe it should be— it is necessary to begin where the world is if we are going to change it to what we think it should be. That means working in the system.”

If at the local level, we can show people that small groups working together can bring about a favorable outcome for all parties in regards to reasonably limiting property rights based on public safety or local concerns, perhaps they can see the viability of what we want to change the world into.