Musings on Anarchy


The word anarchy means different things to different people. From a standard dictionary, anarchy is defined as:

  1. a state of society without government or law.
  2. political and social disorder due to the absence of governmental control: The death of the king was followed by a year of anarchy. Synonyms: lawlessness, disruption, turmoil.
  3. anarchism (def 1).
  4. lack of obedience to an authority; insubordination: the anarchy of his rebellious teenage years.
  5. confusion and disorder: Intellectual and moral anarchy followed his loss of faith. It was impossible to find the book I was looking for in the anarchy of his bookshelves. Synonyms: chaos, disruption, turbulence; license; disorganization, disintegration.

I will not explore the countless uses of the term anarchy. Instead, I will focus on the concept that anarcho-capitalists accept – generally, the political philosophy best developed and expressed in recent times by Murray Rothbard.

Anarchy – Rules, but no Ruler

From the same dictionary:

Word Origin

C16: from Medieval Latin anarchia, from Greek anarkhia, from anarkhos without a ruler, from an- + arkh– leader, from arkhein to rule

1530s, from French anarchie or directly from Medieval Latin anarchia, from Greek anarkhia “lack of a leader, the state of people without a government” (in Athens, used of the Year of Thirty Tyrants, 404 B.C., when there was no archon), noun of state from anarkhos “rulerless,” from an- “without” (see an- (1)) + arkhos “leader” (see archon ).

The origin of the word indicates no ruler – it doesn’t say anything about no rules. This seems to go against the idea of chaos and disruption. It even seems to go against the idea of lawlessness – after all, what is “law” but a rule?

To further explore the roots of the term prior to the 16th century I offer the work of Fritz Kern, regarding the view of law from the earlier medieval times:

For us law needs only one attribute in order to give it validity; it must, directly or indirectly, be sanctioned by the State. But in the Middle Ages, different attributes altogether were essential; mediaeval law must be “old” law and must be “good” law….If law were not old and good law, it was not law at all, even though it were formally enacted by the State.

No one got to just make up law. This prohibition was not only toward the king – it was true for all.

Law was in fact custom. Immemorial usage, testified to by the eldest and most credible people; the leges patrum, sometime but not necessarily proven by external aids to memory, such as charters, boundaries, law-books, or anything else that outlived human beings: this was objective law. And if any particular subjective right was in dispute, the fact that it was in harmony with an ancient custom had much the same importance as would be given today to the fact that it was derived from a valid law of the State.

Then what was the role of the medieval king? Again, returning to Kern:

The relationship between monarch and subject in all Germanic communities was expressed by the idea of mutual fealty, not by that of unilateral obedience.

The people swore their oath to the king; in return, the king was bound to keep his end of the bargain – there were reciprocal duties. The oath was voluntarily taken – each lord had numerous choices. He didn’t have infinite choices, but he had numerous choices.

The king is below the law….if the monarch failed in these duties – and the decision of this question rested with the conscience of every individual member of the community – then every subject, every section of the people, and even the whole community was free to resist him, to abandon him, and to seek out a new monarch.

The king’s only role was to enforce the law – not to define the law or create the law, but to enforce the law. Each lord held a veto power over the king – to be proven by demonstrating an old, good law.

Sovereignty, if it existed at all, resided in the law which ruled over both king and community. But any description of the law as sovereign is useful only because it emphasizes the contrast with later political ideas; otherwise it is better avoided.

Today, our thinking is stuck in a paradigm – there must be a sovereign in physical form, even if one claims the individual as sovereign. In medieval times, if anything was to be labeled “sovereign,” it was the law.

So I go back to the term anarchy: it comes from a time when there was no ruler – certainly not in the sense that we understand the word “ruler” today. While there was no ruler, there were rules. There was a king, whose duty was to enforce the rules – not to rule. If he did something else than – or something more than – enforce the rules, those who swore an oath to him had a duty to the law and not the king.

Who made up the rules? Custom – old and good custom. Nobody got to “make up” the rules, not even the king. Anyone who made up his own rules was rightly considered a tyrant.

Who enforced the rules? Anyone in a position to do so; yet, he was not enforcing rules of his own making but rules accepted by the community – defined by custom, old and good custom.


The non-aggression principle is a rule – don’t initiate aggression. The application of the rule can, at times, be tricky. What is to be done in situations where the answers are gray, where judgement is required? One example – an example that lasted 1000 years, more or less – is offered in the Germanic Middle Ages. The generally accepted culture defined the application. The law was based on custom: old and good law.

One can consider the non-aggression principle as quite old. It is grounded, in addition to other concepts, in the Golden Rule – found in every major religion on earth. It certainly would be considered good (at least by those who claim to adhere to libertarian political thought) – don’t initiate aggression.

Taking a lesson from the Middle Ages, we might consider that in a libertarian society the rule must be sovereign over the individual. Who is to ensure this? During those times, every member of the community had a responsibility to ensure this.

But the NAP isn’t enough. It doesn’t define itself. It doesn’t apply itself to the countless and ever-changing variables inherent in the human condition.

No one individual was sovereign in defining the law; no one individual was sovereign in applying it. The law came before, and was held above, any individuals.

That is about as good a definition of law in anarchy as I can write. This is especially so when considering how the application of anarchic political theory might actually work in a world populated by humans. It is certainly about as good a successful real-world example that I have come across.


Comments are closed.