Anarchy, Libertarianism, ‘Real Justice’, and Arbitrariness

Stephen Yearwood
13 min readMay 17, 2024

for comparison with Dr. Marcus Giles’s “The Fundamental Contradictions in Anarchism and Libertarianism

Photo by Etienne Girardet on Unsplash

As Giles noted, there exist in this world more than one interpretation of both anarchy and libertarianism. All interpretations of each of them do, however, possess a common element, and it is those indisputably common elements to which we will refer in this essay. The purpose here is to use those concepts to clarify ‘real justice’ as well as demonstrating why it is conceptually superior to either of them — and to liberalism, which Giles, as a political liberal within the meta-ideology of Liberalism, also holds to be conceptually superior to either of them. We must note that libertarianism is also a political ideology within Liberalism.

Giles’s critique focused on seeking to expose internal contradictions within anarchy and libertarianism. However successful he may have been, that does not mean that his preferred political ideology of liberalism is without internal contradictions, much less the meta-ideology of Liberalism in which it nests. That meta-ideology is itself premised on the assertion that liberty and equality are universal values that must serve as the ‘twin pillars of justice’ for a just society. Neither is a universal value among human beings. That is a fatal conceptual flaw in itself. Moreover, even if liberty and equality are not necessarily contradictory values, we have learned in the centuries since Liberalism became the most dominant ideology on the planet (theologies being a different thing) that in both theory and practice those two values do generate contradictory political ends and means. Since any political ideology within Liberalism must include both liberty and equality as elements of justice for a just society, each of them, from libertarianism to conservatism to liberalism to democratic (non-Marxist) socialism, also shares individually that conceptual weakness.

Anarchy in all its forms follows from one, unitary premise: there can be no justification for any person or group to impose any constraints concerning how any other person or group must conduct themselves. Different ideas as to how relations among humans would thereby proceed, and on what basis (e.g. some interpretation of ‘human nature’), give rise to the different interpretations of anarchy.

Libertarianism is anarchy’s first cousin. It does make ‘liberty’ the predicate of justice: justice is liberty. For all libertarians, though, liberty is distinguished from licentiousness and even ‘freedom’ in that liberty entails (minimal) inherent limits on human conduct. Differences over the sources and the forms of those limits give rise to variations in libertarianism.

Anyone who reads Dr. Giles’s article will see a valid point for anarchists — as long as any idea of how people’s conduct should be governed is based on any belief(s). For any belief(s) to be used to govern the governance of society — which will always include imposing constraints on individuals’ conduct — is for a belief held by some people in it to be imposed on other people in it. Any such outcome can never be anything but the result of a “contest of power” (Michel Foucault).

Someone might respond that that is O.K. as long as any belief(s) involved are held by at least a majority of the people. That, however, is to put the roof ahead of the foundation. ‘Majority rule’ — more broadly, ‘democracy’ — is a form of governance. Since it is the validity of any form of governance that is at question, we can’t use ‘democracy’ to justify having a democratic form of governance. Indeed, if democracy follows from a belief in equality, then it has no answer for that conceptual objection of the anarchists.

Libertarianism runs into the same problem. It, too, follows from belief. Most libertarians insist that liberty is one of the “Natural Rights” that all human beings share. Such Rights are said to have been perceived to exist — discovered — not conceived or invented by people. According to libertarians who hold that position such Rights accrue to all people as individuals. They are part and parcel of being human whether people are living together in groups or as completely separate, independent beings. In that view, people form communities in order to be able to defend those Rights, which also include the Rights to life and property, more effectively than they can be defended by individuals acting alone: all libertarians would insist that with anarchy those Rights would be under constant threat, if not actual attack. It follows that any community must minimize any encroachments on liberty that living together in any kind of community will entail.

Yet, whether such Rights exist or not can only be a matter of belief. Even so, another defense of liberty as the predicate of justice is available to libertarians. It starts with a perfectly correct definition of injustice: any person(s) being, as John Locke famously put it, “subject to the arbitrary will” of any other person(s). In all my decades of serious reading in philosophy concerning justice I have never seen anyone — even a postmodernist — quibble with that definition. Real justice does nothing but reinforce it. It takes us almost all the way to a justification for anarchy — but for that one word, “arbitrary.”

So for libertarians, people’s conduct can be justly constrained as long as those constraints are not themselves arbitrary. That actually is a valid response to the fundamental claim of anarchy, which implies that any externally imposed constraints will necessarily be arbitrary. That explains why no constraints can be justified. If, however, constraints that are not arbitrary can be shown to exist, then they are justified, invalidating that fundamental claim of anarchists (with more on “arbitrary” to follow).

Unfortunately for libertarians, any constraints they endorse are the result of some belief(s) they hold (see below). That makes those constraints completely arbitrary from the point of view of any person(s) who do not happen to hold those beliefs.

Fortunately for humanity, we now have ‘real justice’ available to us for governing the governance of society. It requires a democratic political process and it would maximize liberty, but it is not in any way arbitrary.

‘Real justice’ is called that because it is wholly contained in the ‘real world’: material existence. It does not involve any belief at any point. The point here is to make the case that for that reason the ethic of real justice is the opposite of an arbitrary constraint on conduct: to reject it as a constraint is an act of arbitrariness.

To act arbitrarily is to act without regard for other people or without regard for the truth, to fail to take other people or the truth into account. The point of any ethic of justice is to require people to take other people into account in some fashion. Any claim to “the truth” about anything will be an especially contentious proposition these days, but there are truths that can only be denied via assertions that are themselves arbitrary, such as ‘Earth is flat’ or ‘Earth does not revolve around the Sun; it revolves around Earth’.

As already noted, any rule governing the governance of any society — its ‘organizing principle ‘— will necessarily entail implications for people’s conduct. It will thus be an ethic of some kind (an ethic being a rule to govern people’s conduct). Again, ethics of justice are distinguished from other ethics, such as ‘rule by the most ruthless’, which can be an organizing for a community — indeed, has been the most common organizing principle (if always unstated) over the course of the history of civilization. Ethics of justice, as already noted, require people (most pointedly, including those in government) to take other people into account in some fashion . If an ethic of justice is itself arbitrary, however, it is not itself ’just’.

That is the case for any ethic following from any belief. All beliefs are true, absolutely and positively, for any and all people who hold them. As noted, however, from the point of view of all other people all beliefs of all people are completely arbitrary. The point of real justice is that it involves no belief at any point. It therefore avoids arbitrariness. It is a just ethic of justice.

To deny the validity of this ethic of justice is itself an act of arbitrariness because this ethic follows from a truth that is common to the experience of life of all human beings. To deny its validity, and therefore its applicability — its protections and its obligations — to all people, including oneself, is to disregard, to refuse to take into account, a universally validated truth.

[To be clear, the author of real justice is yours truly. What follows relating real justice is copied, with some editing, from “Reply to Sam Young” (also here in Medium, but not behind the paywall). It does get back to libertarianism, if not explicitly to anarchy. Some reiteration of what has already been written here will be encountered.]

The ethic of real justice follows from an observation within (perceived) material existence: human beings have no choice but to effect choices, i.e., choose among perceived alternatives and take action to bring that choice to fruition [which I got from Warren J. Samuels]. The importance of that observation as a starting point for arriving at what justice must be cannot be overstated.

That gives us a starting point within material existence for an ethic of justice, as opposed to all other ideas as to how relations among people should be governed that have ever been proffered. All those have started from some personally held, immaterial truth: a belief. Again, any such truth is inerrantly true, but only for those who happen to hold it to be true. For all others it can be rejected as a truth for any reason or no reason at all perfectly legitimately: without being more arbitrary than that assertion is.

That human beings have no choice but to effect choices is, on the other hand, an experience of material existence. The truth of it cannot legitimately be rejected unless it can be falsified within the context of that existence. That simply can’t be done: all people are constrained in various ways and to varying extents concerning the choices we can effect, but all people’s experience of life within material existence informs them that human beings have no choice but to effect choices. It is a simple fact of material existence (as we humans perceive it).

That observation transforms into an ethic of justice because, as social beings living together in groups, governance is an unavoidable aspect of our material existence. Generically, governance is concerned with how individuals in society are required to treat one another as well as the structure and sanctioned functioning of the political process (the process of effecting choices for the community as a whole) and the economy (the process of producing/acquiring goods/services — which is nothing but choices being effected). Both of those processes are an unavoidable aspect of the existence of a formally organized human society; becoming formally organized is itself a political act, and human beings cannot exist without producing/acquiring goods/services. Within the domain of justice — actions undertaken to effect a choice — people must be governed by the ‘minimum condition of justice’ of this ethic (though they can always ‘do better’). Outside the domain of justice only personal morality can exist as a form of self-governance.

That human beings have no choice but to effect choices makes choosing integral to being human. To respect the capacity of other people to choose for themselves is to recognize them as fellow human beings. To act otherwise is to make some claim about the other being(s) involved that cannot be sustained within material existence. It is to assert by one’s actions some ‘truth’ that lies outside of material existence: to act that way is to make a claim that any other beings involved are not really (or fully) human or that there is some inherent hierarchy involved, some kind of status of intrinsic superiority/inferiority. No claim of any such kind can be validated within material existence.

Yet, justice isn’t a matter of ‘equality’. All that matters for this account of justice is that the beings involved are humans.

So real justice yields three basic requirements for governance:

  1. The ethic of real justice is a requirement to respect, when effecting any choice, the capacity of all people to choose for themselves, beginning with their choosing whether/how/to what extent to be involved whenever any choice is being effected. It boils down to a handful of absolute prohibitions concerning our actions that involve any other people in effecting any choice — whether for oneself or on behalf of any other person, or organization, or group, or cause: no killing, harming, coercing, stealing, or manipulating (which includes lying, cheating, etc.). (Of those, “harming” does in particular call for further attention, but that need not detain us here.) Anyone who refrains from any such actions in effecting any choice is being just enough.
  2. Real justice requires a democratic political process: freedom of political speech for all members of the community and a democratic distribution of all other political rights, meaning they are available to all members of the community but for universal restrictions, universally applied. Only a democratic political process takes all members of the community — citizens — into account, making it the only just form the political process can take. [It has already been learned that the only unquestionably universal restriction is age (as a proxy for maturity, etc.): property, ‘race’, gender, and (notably for present purposes) creed — beliefs — have all been discarded as discriminators because their unjustness, in that they applied only to particular individuals, was realized.]
  3. Real justice requires a democratically distributed income because money is to the economy as political rights are to the political process. As a trained economist (M.A.) I have developed an approach to such an income that would absolutely, positively eliminate unemployment and poverty at any level of total output, systemically increase sustainability, and even provide the possibility for eliminating taxes/public debt for funding government.

Giles singled out Robert Nozick as an important libertarian philosopher. Like Giles, I am not a fan. His book [Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974)] was a response to John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice (1971), which is generally considered to be the most important contemporary philosophical rendering of liberalism. To my mind, Nozick mostly reiterated what John Locke had written about justice c. three centuries earlier — whose work was clearly out of date fifty years ago. Still, one point Nozick made that I do endorse is that any “end-state” approach to justice will necessarily be arbitrary because it will bring arbitrary values into it.

At the time I read Nozick, it occurred to me that an arbitrary value must also underlie any attempt to claim justice for any process, as opposed to an end-state. Nozick claimed that ‘liberty’ is not an arbitrary value, so liberty as an organizing principle results in a process that is not arbitrary. But of course ‘liberty’ as the organizing principle for a society is as arbitrary as ‘equality’ is. Moreover, it is actually the opposite of an ethic, i.e., a rule to govern the conduct of people: as both Locke and Nozick explicitly recognize, it is “in need of some restraint” (Mick Jagger/Keith Richards, “Sympathy for the Devil”). So at best that approach to a just society ends up locating arbitrariness in the value used to constrain liberty. Locke ultimately depended on a belief in ‘equality’ for that, and so did Nozick. At this point I’ll forego belaboring the arbitrariness in that conceptual move.

I eventually realized that mutual respect in effecting choices is an ethical process that is not arbitrary. Again, any value (including ‘liberty’) that is based on a personal, immaterial truth will necessarily be arbitrary from the point of view of any other person. Mutual respect in effecting choices is not arbitrary because it follows, not from a personal, immaterial truth, but — yet again — from an experience of life as it is lived within material existence that all human beings share — and all know they all share. To reject it is an act of arbitrariness (unless it were to be successfully — rationally — refuted, meaning to ‘falsify’ it as an observation within material existence or to find a fatal flaw in the reasoning from that observation to the ethic claimed to follow from it).

It does so happen that the maximum liberty that coexisting people can share simultaneously would be a byproduct of a society governed by this ethic. In the end, however, the validity of this approach to justly governing the governance of society is utterly independent of any other thoughts on the subject. Still, it would produce a society very similar to a Liberal society.

That similarity to a Liberal society is due to two factors: Liberalism has been the only ideology to seek to understand what justice is and then apply that to the governance of society, and it holds equality and liberty to be the ‘twin pillars’ of justice. ‘Equality’ calls for mutual respect, and mutual respect in effecting choices would maximize liberty. Hence, the aforementioned similarity. These days, the limits of Liberalism [re. Michael J. Sandel’s Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (1982)], both practical and conceptual, are being exposed, exacerbating the need for an ethic of justice to take its place. This ethic is an advance beyond Liberalism, but its validity in no way depends upon Liberalism — or any other thoughts on the subject of justice or any other approach to governance. Nor can this ethic be invalidated by any other thoughts on the subject of justice or governance in any other form. That conceptual independence follows from the completeness of its position in material existence: its determinant (the observation that people have no choice but to effect choices) and its referents, i.e., that to which it applies (actions undertaken to effect a choice that involve at least one other person in any way).

So the fundamental premise of anarchists, that there can be no justification for any externally imposed constraints on people’s conduct, is belied by the existence in real justice of an ethic that is in no way arbitrary. A society governed by that ethic would be very similar to a Liberal society, with democracy and maximum liberty. Equality and liberty are not foundational values within real justice, however. Indeed, no belief-based ‘value’ is any part of its derivation. Its validity as a requirement for people to respect the capacity of other people to choose for themselves whenever any choice is being effected follows from the arbitrariness of any act — or any attempt at a justification for any act — that would contravene that ethic.


more about this approach to justly governing society: “Can’t Get Any Simpler” (a “2 min read” also here in Medium, with an array of links for more at the end of it, nothing behind the paywall)



Stephen Yearwood

unaffiliated, non-ideological, unpaid: M.A. in political economy (where philosophy and economics intersect) with a focus in money/distributive justice