Excerpt from Letters From the Last Days

This is an except from an unfinished manuscript tentatively titled LETTERS FROM THE LAST DAYS. When, if ever, time or interest will permit me to return to his work is unknown. 

It is neither quite fiction nor nonfiction: the conceit here is that Time Travelers have arranged to allow my younger self, from AD 1984, to exchange letters with my older self, from AD 2042, on matters where the two do not agree.

These two letters given below concern libertarianism.

I offer it here as an oddity to amuse my beloved readers.

Letter XV — Anarchy Distinguished
14 July 1984


To My Self Yet To Come,

Libertarian theory can be distinguished from any sort of quasi-anarchism or any sort of anarchism. We are making the case here for limited government, not for no government.

Please note that the classical Enlightenment theory places the freedoms of speech, the press, assembly, and religion beyond the scope of government, as well as the private ownership of arms.

The simple reason for placing these things in the private sphere and beyond the reach of government is that the risk (of the state using the power to quell sedition to quell honest dissent) outweighs the rewards (of the state using the power to quell sedition to preserve an honest and lawful union from dissolving into anarchy).

Libertarianism is a more logically consistent version of the same philosophy, but which additionally places the regulation of labor, advertisement, and industry beyond the scope of government; as well as any private behavior, such as Sabbath-breaking, sex outside marriage, the use of intoxicating drugs or alcohol, gambling, prostitution, smoking tobacco, helmetless motorcycling, or in short, anything not breaking a contract, committing a fraud, trespassing on private land, or disturbing the peace.

The simple reason for placing these things in the private sphere and beyond the reach of government is that the risk (using the power to quell public disorder to quell honest but merely annoying private immorality) outweighs the rewards (using the power to quell public disorder to preserve an honest and lawful union).

The difference between classical Enlightenment theory and Libertarianism is one of degree, not of kind: it is the difference between Limited Government and Very Limited Government.

I am not arguing in favor of private courts of law or police forces. By the very nature of the institution, the state must possess an unquestioned monopoly on the use of force within its borders.

If we are arguing for Limited or Very Limited Government, the theory requires that the attribution of agency powers to the sovereign by the people is revocable only with the sovereign’s permission, which the sovereign is obligated to recognize only when no danger to the peace and good order of society from such desertion obtains, or when carried out by a permitted due process, such as a Constitutional Convention. The unilateral secession of the Southern States of the Union, for example, cannot be permitted if the Union is to endure.

The one great exception to this rule is the one announced in the Declaration of Independence: when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce the people under absolute despotism, it is the right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.

And the theory of Very Limited Governments does not expand this exception

Since the purpose of government is the maintenance of liberty, peace and good order, the state is under a positive duty to protect the rights of its citizens, their lives and possessions, from insurrection, crime, and acts of war, which includes rebellion and secession.

This means that any consensual theory of the state awards to the sovereign an exclusive monopoly on police power and war-making power inherent in the concept of statehood, even under a theory of limited government. The only difference is that, under a libertarian theory of Very Limited Government, the state may enforce the laws or go to war when and only when necessary to deter aggression or to retaliate in due proportion against aggressors and malefactors at home or abroad.

You see, under both the theory of Limited Government and the theory of Very Limited Government, the state is a necessary evil. The state is an instrument of violence, and I am proposing that any man and all men have a positive duty to avoid violence save in proportionate retaliation against an aggressor: therefore a moral state is one which uses violence to deter violence, and an immoral state is one that uses violence for some other end, usually plunder, rapine, terror and conquest.

If (as I suggest) men have a positive duty to form a state to quell the natural violence which would otherwise arise between man and man, then as a corollary they must have a duty to avoid failing to create a state.

It would be as if I said a man has a moral duty to find a wife and wed; but if so, then he has a positive duty to avoid remaining a bachelor.

Likewise here. If the anarchy of the state of nature is something men are under a duty to domesticate and abolish, then men in the state of nature do not have a right to create each man or each tribe his own separate and isolated state.

To answer your question directly: no, an individual in the state of nature does not have the moral authority to prevent his neighbor from forming a separate state — but he would have such a right if the separate state trespassed on the individual’s natural rights. Since there are few, perhaps no, reasons for forming a separate state aside from gathering power to trample the rights of neighbors, as a practical matter, this question would never come up. If the defensive alliances of two libertarian states were occupying the same patch of ground, and they both adhered to the same principle of non-aggression, they would live alongside each other quite peaceably. If friction arose between them, and their choice was between combining their two states so as to form a common magistrate to settle disputes peacefully, or to go to war, the moral decision would be to form the common magistracy.

As a pragmatic matter—and libertarianism is nothing if not pragmatic—the situation of two states simultaneously being formed in the same territory at the same time, so that neither had prior claim to the other, will hardly ever arise.

I have laid out the case for the Enlightenment political theory as clearly as I can, space permitting. I do note that I did not rigorously define or defend such notions as ‘agency’ or ‘joint and several liability’ or even what is meant by ‘the state of nature.’   I deem I need not weary a man on his death bed by listing the justifications for these commonplaces. Unless you have forgotten, you know the material as well as I. If you announce an objection where I have not been rigorous, I will answer.

My conclusion from all the foregoing is that, on this basis, if the men of the Year 2000 would not bestir themselves to defend themselves from an enemy so remarkably weaker in troops and supplies and war-chest, that the sovereign power, vested, in this case, in the federal government, was negligent in its duty to make war against attackers who had committed an act of war. This cannot be due to a loss or lack of the classical liberal theory.

The right of self-defense is the center of the classical liberal theory, and, indeed forms the justification (the only justification) for the demand of the state for obedience to its laws and regulations. The state exists because it is more efficient to centralize the self-defense of all men into one coordinated and coherent body, operating under one uniform set of laws. If the administration of the state shirks the duty of self-defense, this is not a flaw in the theory, but in the administration. The people have trusted the wrong men to see to the common defense; and, being a democracy, they may (with less contumely and bloodshed than that to be found in any other system of replacing leaders) elect a new administration.

Had the men of the Year 2000 been motivated by the theory of the Divine Right of Kings, or the Hobbesian theory of Absolute Power, the result would have been no different. Both these theories demand the sovereign protect the people: the one because divine fiat demands the anointed king protect his subjects; or the other because the social contract that creates the Leviathan is expressly to prevent violent death at the hands of others.

I see no flaw in the logic, given these axioms, and no reason to dismiss these axioms, given the nature of reality and given the realities of the human condition on Earth. If you are making the claim that liberal theory or libertarian theory caused the loss of morale and caused the civilization-wide suicide you describe, you must not only show that this is the case, but also show why some other result would obtain, all else being equal, from some other theory of government (the Divine Right of Kings or Hobbesian Absolutism). I await your answer—if any answer can be made! — with considerable interest.

With hope and respect,

John C. Wright


Letter  XVI — In the Light of Omicron Eridani
30 December 2042
The Memorial of Saint John Alcober


To My Self That Was


The axiom of the Ayn Randian libertarian theory is that all interactions between man and man must be voluntary and uncoerced, except and only except retaliation against fraud, trespass and violence.

A corollary directly following from this is that men in the state of nature have the duty to erect a prince or enact a parliament to rule over them, in order to establish peace and order.

I submit this duty cannot be followed unless those men following it have the right to use force to compel recalcitrant yet innocent people (including their own children) inside the boundaries they claim into fealty to the sovereign, and this includes both criminals and rebels a and peaceful secessionists. If founder and preservers of a commonwealth can and must use force against the innocent to found or preserve the state, this corollary is a direct contradiction to the first axiom

I suggest that the axiom of the Ayn Randian libertarian theory misses the essential point of civil society, which is not based on self-defense, but on authority.

For let us imagine a world based on self-defense but not on authority:

Let me now take you to the planet of a far sun, Omicron Eridani. We must imagine this to be a white star, shedding only by the light of reason, and the world is planet Vulcan, where only creatures of pure logic reside, and we descend to land on the island of the Houyhnhnms, those paragons of reason, conveniently located in one of the oceans of that immense, distant world. (I cannot use human beings for my example, since no human being can or does act as I am about to describe.)

They adhere to the legal theory of strict non-aggression.

By the strict and logically consistent version of the theory, any Houyhnhnms wandering as herds in the wilderness, if coming upon a maverick Houyhnhnm, may not compel nor coerce him to join into an alliance for their mutual defense, nor prevent him from joining whatever antagonistic alliance he sees fit.

In effect, this means a peaceful stranger remain is sacrosanct from aggression or threat, and therefore sacrosanct from the law.

Imagine early in their history, when herds of Houyhnhnms and pods of Vulcans wandering in unsettled wilderness came across each other. Being logical creatures, each sees the advantage to his own self-defense of combining his strength into a corporate body operating under coordinated command and uniform rules.

Let us further suppose that the Vulcan wish to fence off common greens and erect boundary stones, dividing the land into farms for agricultural husbandry, and the Houyhnhnms wish to break any fences, to allow the fields be kept under join and several ownership for grazing and nomadic herding.

The classical answer to any conflict of ownership between the herdsman and the husbandmen is the answer of Locke: that whoever first commingles his labor with the land earns the exclusive right to use it, and hence the right to forbid the use by others. By this formulation, no nomadic herdsmen may ever acquire an ownership right in land, even if herdsmen have been using certain areas for grazing and pasturing since time immemorial. By this formulation, the Houyhnhnms are condemned to extinction, since any Vulcan by planting a single grain of wheat or plowing a single furrow of soil can claim he has impregnated the unclaimed land with his labor. Whether one grain grants him a square foot, or a field, or an acre, or a square mile, is an arbitrary convention of the law that cannot be determined or debated by abstract logical principles, Libertarian or Lockean.

So, even if at first peaceful, the Houyhnhnms and Vulcans have an irreducible conflict of interest. With no aggression nor ill-will on either side, each individual of the separate races sees it is in his long-term best interest (and therefore each has a moral duty) to ally himself with others to form a corporate body for their mutual defense: and the herdsmen must side with the herdsmen and the husbandmen must side with the husbandmen; and the use to which they wish to put the territory, to which they both have equal claim, is incompatible, since you cannot use the same field at the same time for raising and grazing. Both corporate bodies must attract the patronage of unaligned persons within warring distance, and they both occupy the same territory.

Now here there are only two choices: first, the consent must be perfectly unanimous; any member wishing to depart the clientship of the protective agency may do so at any time, without giving any justification, for the same reason that a dissatisfied patron of a restaurant need never return to that restaurant for a meal, if the service displeases him.

Second, both corporate bodies, the Houyhnhnm and the Vulcan, resort to force to compel the members of the other to join them. This would seem to defy the logic of Libertarian, Classical Liberal, Nonaggression-at-all-costs political theory.

The result of the first option is to have two mutually hostile and increasing hostile armed camps occupying the same territory. In that case, the right and wrong of this situation can be determined by and only by which of the two strikes the first blow or commits the first trespass. However, if so, the Libertarian formulation is worthless: when Surak plants the first seed and claims the first acre of common green the Houyhnhnms can justly call him a trespasser, and observe that he means to eject them from their ancestral pastures, or else conquer them, are free to use force against him. At the same time, Surak can justly call the Houyhnhnm trespassers for attempting to unseat him from the unclaimed land where he has planted his crop, which he must have the right to harvest in peace, or else his toil is vain.

Saying that each side must wait (no doubt raising armies and sharpening weapons) until the planting and sowing interferes intolerably with the pasturing and grazing, or until the pasturing and grazing interferes intolerably with the planting and sowing does not change the basic ambiguity of the basic question. It is a situation where right is on the side of whoever fails to commit the first trespass, because both sides can legitimately claim the other is the trespasser.

More importantly, both sides can claim with equal justice that the other is in violation of the general natural duty to combine into a corporate body of mutual protection.

The second option, where both corporate bodies are allowed (even morally commanded) to use force to compel all individuals within the territory to vow fealty to the common sovereign results in war.

I honestly know not what to call this corporate body: it is not a state nor a principality in any Earthly sense of the word, nor is it a gang nor again a Pinkerton Agency hiring out bodyguards to retaliate against private wrongs. This body—let us call it a Protection Provider—has no name in any Earthly language because nothing like it on earth has ever existed, and never can and never will.

The Protection Provider is a temporary or contractual alliance for the codification of contracts and the provision for the common defense. It exists nowhere but in the hypothetical writings of libertarians and anarcho-capitalists. It is the formal structure of a state or principality without the animating spirit or sense of mutual loyalty that all real states in the real world and principalities must have in order to survive.

The Provider, unlike a real state or principality, can neither draft nor field armies, nor establish boundaries, nor repel smugglers or wetbacks or aliens, because there is no citizenship and no subjection here. There are only customers, who voluntarily, under whatever terms seem to them to be in their enlightened self interest, give whatever minimum is needed to satisfy their obligation to help provide for the common defense; and in return the coordinating facilitator or umpire urges every other voluntary customer to do likewise.

For let us pretend that a Provider, named Surak, attempts to establish a boundary of the first Vulcan civilization. Surak paces off an area resting between the Great River and the High Hills, dubs it Happy Valley.

There is a small band of Houyhnhnms wintering in one of the fields near the center of Happy Valley, however, and these logical creatures will not agree to coordinate for their mutual defense: and the Houyhnhnms claim an easement, or right to pass back and forth between this field and the Great River, and to cut down trees to make rafts for their seasonal migrations, as they have done since time immemorial.

What then? Surak the Vulcan cannot allow an alien sovereign nation to exist within the bounds of his sovereign nation, living under its own laws and having no mutually agreed-upon magistrate to settle such differences of opinion and conflicts of rights as must inevitably, even among perfectly logical and nonagressive peoples, from time to time arise.

The Houyhnhnms cannot help but notice the advantage of living in the center of a valley whose fringes are settled by armed Vulcans, because any incursions (except, perhaps by air) will be repelled by the armed courage, sacrifice and discipline of any militia of Vulcans Surak musters to protect the valley. The Houyhnhnms need not contribute to Surak’s war coffers, march and drill, gather when the tocsin sounds, or bleed or die in the defense of their loved homes. The Vulcans, merely because of the lay of the land, must bear all these expenses alone.

Likewise, any Vulcans living near the river, who do not fear any attack by hillmen, refuse to contribute toward the expense of building and manning a fortress in the mountain pass; and likewise again, the Vulcans living near the hills, who do not fear any attack by river pirates, refuse to contribute toward the expense of building and manning a shipyard and a navy.

Your answer implies that the Vulcans have the right and the duty to compel the Houyhnhnms to join; to force them to pay taxes into the war coffers, to draft them for service in the military, no doubt in the cavalry. Perhaps under these circumstances, you would allow the one group to expel the other from its territory, or allow one group to exist as a federal state subordinate to and within the boundaries of another, but even then the lesser and included state would need to establish a boundary where it is sovereign.

Likewise the river folk must contribute to the defense against threats from the mountains, and hill folk must contribute to the defense against threats from the river, and this contribution will be exacted as taxes since no one can for long operate against his own self interest and voluntarily bestow money into the war-chest or send sons to the drill field when none of his neighbors do likewise.

But you carefully limited your answer. You said that the Houyhnhnms must visit some evil upon the Vulcans before Surak is morally permitted to take up arms to subject the Houyhnhnms  to a sovereign state.

Is the free riding off the warlike sacrifices and military taxation, the draft and the impressments of the Vulcans a sufficient “harm” to trigger the right to civilize by force?

If so, what can a Houyhnhnm do who does not wish to be associated or allied with the Vulcans, but who happens to dwell on land they claim as their own, or they claim has crucial military significance to themselves?


With love and fondest memories,

John Charles Justin Wright