Roy Childs on anarchism
by Ronald N. Neff, continued

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Part five

Archist illusions

After the essay on Nozick appeared, Roy's work tended to be less theoretical and more issue-related. He had been fired as editor of Libertarian Review in May 1974 and was given the position of associate editor. With the July 1977 issue, however, after the magazine had been purchased from Kephart, he was reinstated in his former position.

In 1979, the July-August and the October issues took a stand on nuclear power that reversed a previously articulated position (BFL, January 1974). An altercation between Roy and Murray Rothbard (and others) ensued. Their opposition expanded and carried over into their respective associations with the Libertarian Party and the Cato Institute, and in 1980 Roy fired Rothbard from Libertarian Review. While Rothbard was insisting on maintaining the closest adherence to libertarian principles, Roy was becoming ever more critical of what he called "purism."

After the debacle of the LP's presidential campaign in 1980, the rupture was complete, and Roy continued to formulate arguments against strict adherence to libertarian principles in the realm of political activity.

It should have come as no surprise, then, that he finally declared himself no longer an anarchist, making his change of mind generally known in 1987 and claiming to have a refutation of his own arguments that would be published later. In fact, no such refutation ever appeared. In Liberty Against Power, Joan Kennedy Taylor includes a 1,200-word fragment found among his papers, to which she gives the date 1989; in it Roy presents no arguments, only intentions. [16]

No one knows exactly what finally effected Roy's change of mind. Taylor's suspicions in her editor's note on page 179 of Liberty Against Power are almost certainly erroneous. [17] George Smith, a friend of Roy's for whom Roy had great respect and affection, despite certain ruptures that broke out between them (Smith once referred to Roy as "the chameleon of the libertarian movement"), recounts a conversation that he says almost led to Roy's revealing his arguments. [18] In that conversation, Smith quotes Roy as saying, "Well, anarchism isn't practical." Smith seems to think that this comment was the merest tip of a syllogistic iceberg. I would agree that it does not sound like the heart of an argument Roy would have formulated or even used.

I have my own suspicions concerning Roy's change of mind, but they, like Taylor's, are guesswork. They touch on the comment Smith elicited from him, but I caution the reader: what follows is speculation and it depends in large measure on my sense of Roy and his way of conversing. I also ask the reader not to leap to conclusions about my regard for Roy. I esteemed him highly, but I was not blind to his faults, and I believe that it was they that lay at the root of this change.

When Roy informed me of his change of mind in 1982 — five years earlier than Taylor dates it — he mentioned no personal influences on him or arguments that had led him to it. He referred to the condition into which Lebanon had fallen after the shelling of Beirut by Israel in September of that year, and he said that that was what anarchism would produce. Like Smith, I did not believe that this was the whole story, but like Smith I was unable to elicit further comments from him.

In May 1989, in another conversation, he repeated the comment about Lebanon. This time, he added that Rothbard and others forever contend that one cannot predict the shape a market will take until it exists but that they nevertheless go on to describe in detail how a market in defense would function. At the time I understood him to be referring primarily to Rothbard's Power and Market (which he had praised effusively in the introductory issue of Kephart's SIL Services Bulletin, mentioning particularly that one of the "two greatest sections of the work" was Rothbard's "attempt to show how defense services can be handled on the free market"), though he might as well have been referring to his own comments in "Epistemological Basis." He did not mention the work of Morris and Linda Tannehill. [19]

Moreover, I must add that his remarks were not made in a dispassionate way or in the intense, yet cheerful, laughing voice I had come to associate with Roy Childs's ways of arguing. I thought them petulant.

In his 1982 tribute to Ayn Rand in The Newsletter Update, Roy wrote of her influence on American culture and the libertarian movement. [20] In contrast to the ennobling potential of Objectivism he had described in 1968, he now described what could happen to a teenager who had read Atlas Shrugged out of the blue as "a shattering experience — and not always a liberating one, to be frank about the matter." Observing that Atlas was not set in America "as it was, or ever will be," he added that for readers influenced by it, "it became a way of viewing the world. It became, in short, part of people's minds, and they saw the world through that book." And how, he asked, is social change achieved in Atlas? "Through a gradual collapse of the world after the men of the mind go on strike. All right, you're a young libertarian, and you want to effect change. What do you do? Go on strike? You see the problem."

"In fact," he argued, "change depends upon intellectual and political entrepreneurship, on taking advantage of opportunities in a strategically effective and goal-directed manner." And what kind of people were the intellectual and political entrepreneurs who finally emerged in the movement? "Those who are not afraid to run for office, or to run a campaign, or to write for a general audience or address important issues, or even to interact with ad hoc movements with which libertarians have some common ground." (Taylor, Liberty Against Power, pp. 279-80)

"Those who are not afraid to run for office"? If it had not been clear from his participation in the early efforts of the Libertarian Party, it was unmistakable now that he had already turned his back on his early analysis of democracy: "And what do politicians do? They support the growth of the state." Had he himself come to believe that "you can dehydrate a plant by watering it"? Possibly. What I consider important for this discussion, however, is that he had entered the political arena — even running for Congress in 1980! — without offering any refutation of his earlier position. [21]

With that as a backdrop, let us recall his remark to George Smith that anarchism was "not practical." I do not think he meant by that that anarchism was an ideal that could never be achieved, or that competing defense agencies could not behave justly. I think he meant that anarchism merely exacerbated the alienation from American culture its adherents already felt, especially adherents who came from an Objectivist background. It is clear from his own participation in the Libertarian Party and from the comments he made in "Ayn Rand and the Libertarian Movement" that he thought liberty was to be achieved through political action, and that to refuse to be involved in electoral politics was to cede the field to statists. And therefore political action was necessary. Since anarchism was incompatible with political action, it was incompatible with the achievement of liberty. And therefore it was false and destructive. [22]

This, I believe, is the connection between his saying that it was "impractical," and his writing in "Anarchist Illusions" that anarchism is "an incoherent and therefore unreachable goal that inevitably corrupts any attempted strategy to achieve it." (Taylor, p. 181)

In addition, I believe that, because of the feud that had arisen between him and Rothbard, Roy was prepared to take a position contrary to Rothbard's whenever it was possible. In 1982 — and that is the time when he first spoke of his change of mind — he was deeply at odds with Rothbard, and I think he would have been delighted to refute him on an issue that so distinguished him from other Austrian economists, political thinkers, and libertarians.

"Now, it has been said," Roy wrote in "Ayn Rand and the Libertarian Movement," "that someone defines his own stature by the enemies he chooses." He had made his bones nearly 13 years before by taking on no less a figure than Ayn Rand. Now he thought he saw an opportunity to demonstrate that "Mr. Libertarian" had made a colossal error in his thinking that had set him "on a collision course with reality." [23]

Given the way I had seen Roy work, I find it significant that he left the piece unfinished (indeed, barely begun), arguments all unmarshalled. It was unlike him to have formulated arguments that he could not articulate once he began writing. And it is worth remembering that he himself did not publish "Anarchist Illusions." On the other hand, his health was in serious decline throughout the late 1980s until his death in 1992, and it is possible that he just lacked the energy to complete the project.

I am inclined to believe that in fact there was no secret refutation. Consider what a refutation would have meant. It is not just a matter of whether or not Roy had formulated one syllogism and kept it to himself. It would have meant refuting not only the arguments of the Open Letter, but all those of "Epistemological Basis" and the torrent of arguments in "Anarchism & Justice." It would have meant that he had found that independent judgment was somehow not incompatible with the existence of an organization that could overrule it. It would have meant that he had arrived at a new theory concerning the origin of the state that was not rooted in conquest. It would have meant that he had new insights as to how a state could exist without taxation, subpoenas, arrests, and laws against perjury. It would have meant that he had found a way the state could really be limited by a constitution. It would have meant that he had found a moral objection and perhaps a practical objection to providing defense services on the free market, and that it was not necessary for men in government to exercise powers of intellectual elitism. It would have meant that he had discovered an actual social problem and that he was able to determine that a particular form of the state was the simplest solution to it, according to the principle of parsimony. It would have meant that at least some of the arguments defending the limited state — arguments he had refuted — could be repaired and made valid.

I do not say that the genius of Roy Childs would not have been up to the task, if anarchism were in fact false. But that for nearly 10 years he kept all of this to himself? All of it? That not one of these insights with their implications stretching into virtually every social issue one can imagine ever wiggled its way into any essay or speech?

I do not believe it.

That Roy had become genuinely dissatisfied with the power of anarchism to fuel the advance of liberty seems incontrovertible. And since he had come to believe that it was incompatible with the achievement of liberty, logic would compel him to conclude that there had to be a flaw in an argument that would lead to it, even if he could not produce that argument. Had he "paused, and questioned" I do not believe that he would have actually forgotten that, as Godwin had said, "government is, abstractly taken, an evil, an usurpation upon the private judgment and individual conscience of mankind." I do not believe that he would have lost sight of the "unspeakably beautiful" exercise of private judgment opposed by the state wherever it had existed.

To be sure, there was something about anarchism that was bothering him, but I think it was more in the nature of a personal animus than an argument. If so, "Anarchist Illusions" is not an unfinished work at all: it says all he had to say on the subject.

Such is my speculation. I have given my reasons for my suspicions, but I would be remiss if I did not confess to being affronted by the fragment.

Roy asserted (not argued) that anarchism was similar to the concepts of equality or planning in that, like them, it was an incoherent goal. Like them, he implied, anarchism could "only be achieved by the most extreme and unacceptable means." The last paragraph of this fragment added that anyone who did not shrink from accepting the consequences of such means "would probably be in the minority, which is where psychopaths properly belong."

As someone who was honored by his friendship, I am grieved by the obvious implication left by this last sentence. After asserting that anarchism was like equality and planning in certain respects, including that its end result, like theirs, "would horrify many [libertarians] if they could see it in advance," is it not clear what was to follow?

Twenty years before, he had insulted Ayn Rand at the beginning of what became his most influential work. At the ending of what was destined to be his least influential work, he was insulting those who disagreed with him about free-market anarchism, insinuating that they were psychopaths.

To the conclusion.

Posted 2003 by WTM Enterprises.
© 2003 by Ronald N. Neff. All rights reserved by author.

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