The Dark Side of Libertarian Freedom (Part 1)

How an Anarcho-Capitalist Experiment Went Bad

Beginning in 2012, a group of North American libertarians conceived a plan: they would start a community in the Andes mountains of Chile, based on the principles of libertarianism and “anarcho-capitalism.” This would enable them to enjoy the lifestyle they wanted for their families without the taxation and government interference typical of American society. They named their community “Galt’s Gulch Chile,” after a fictional location in Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, where competent capitalists seek refuge while the rest of the world falls apart.

A few years later, another group of libertarians conceived a similar idea and decided to start a community in Acapulco, Mexico. This community grew up around an annual libertarian conference that met in the Pacific coast resort town. Known as the “freedom conference” or “Anarchapulco,” it attracted anarcho-capitalists from throughout North America. Speakers included Ron Paul, David Icke, Dayna Martin, and other leading figures of modern libertarianism. Gradually this conference evolved into a permanent community in Acapulco based on the values of autonomy and self-rule. Libertarians began relocating with their families to be part of an intentional community, inspired by the possibilities of a life without anyone telling them what to do.

Filmmaker Todd Schramke was intrigued by the Anarchapulco experiment, having been fascinated with anarcho-capitalism after encountering it years earlier while working as a punk-rock musician. So, Schramke decided to document the community and spent six years videoing and interviewing the participants. The footage he collected eventually became the basis for the 2022 HBO docuseries The Anarchists.

Why would wealthy and middle-class Americans want to give up on life in the United States and relocate to less developed countries like Chile and Mexico? To answer this question, we need to understand the historical background of the modern libertarian movement.

Background to Libertarianism

When America was founded, it was based on the principles of limited government, in reaction to the bloating power of European monarchies. Political thinkers like Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams, and various anti-federalists emphasized the virtues of individualism and localism, warning what would happen if the federal government became too strong or succumbed to the temptation to over-legislate.

We all know that these warnings were ignored. Over time America developed a gargantuan administrative state that is far more powerful than any 18th century monarch would have ever dreamt of. No king or ancient warlord would have presumed to tell you how many electrical sockets your house must have or what type of steel must be used in your garage door. Nor did any ancient god-king, while claiming divine honors, approach the aspirations of the modern political classes, who strain towards omnipotence through a legislative agenda that leaves no area of life untouched and who approach omniscience through surveillance technology that leaves no area truly private. Indeed, we have reached the situation that Alexis de Tocqueville prophetically foresaw, when he declared, “Society will develop a new kind of servitude which covers the surface of society with a network of complicated rules, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate. It does not tyrannise but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.”

These were some of the concerns that animated the Galt’s Gulch Chile community, as well as the Anarchapulco movement in Mexico. But unlike those who critique the administrative state from within the standard categories of conservative discourse, the people in these communities are part of a growing movement of libertarians who maintain that a more radical solution is required. It isn’t simply that the United States government has overstepped its bounds, they argue; rather, we must recover an idea of freedom that is antithetical to the very project of the modern nation state.

These theories draw heavily on the anarcho-capitalist political philosopher, Murray Rothbard (1926-1995), whose 1982 book The Ethics of Liberty argued that the very existence of the modern state — an entity with a monopoly on the exercise of force— is contrary to natural rights and results in people being unfree. Drawing on thinkers from the Enlightenment period, Rothbard argued that true liberty is the right to self-government and personal autonomy, independent of external structures like the federal government.

Not all libertarians take such a radical view. Some libertarian thinkers, such as the Harvard scholar Robert Nozick (1938-2002), have argued for a very minimal “night-watchman” style government. Similarly, Ayn Rand (1905 –1982), author of Atlas Shrugged, advocated a limited-government libertarianism. For strict anarcho-capitalists, however, these libertarians did not go far enough: we must question the very idea of modern political order. Their contention is that an ordered prosperous society can best be achieved by replacing political bonds with non-coercive voluntary associations. Believing that all nation states lack the authority to tax, anarcho-capitalists view the entire apparatus of government as arbitrary and illegitimate.

The best way to understand both anarcho-capitalists and more moderate forms of libertarianism is to explore the theory of freedom they share in common.

Libertarianism and Liberty

One of the speakers at the Anarchapulco conference, the retired congressman and former presidential candidate Ron Paul, articulated the libertarian conception of freedom by suggesting that we can only be free if the government stays out of our lives. Here is how Dr. Paul defined freedom in an article published for the Libertarian organization, the Mises Institute:

Liberty means to exercise human rights in any manner a person chooses so long as it does not interfere with the exercise of the rights of others. This means, above all else, keeping government out of our lives.

Notice that this is a purely negative definition of freedom, untethered from positive ends like virtue or human flourishing. This is deliberate, for libertarians believe the state should be value-neutral and hold back from promoting one version of the good life over another. According to this line of thought, rulers do not have a God-given vocation to orient their citizens towards the Good, nor to promote what Edmund Burke called a “manly, moral, regulated liberty.” Rather, rulers should strive to create a space of maximal autonomy, to allow what Alasdair MacIntyre called “the privatization of the good.” On this paradigm, freedom is not what happens, but what does not happen: it emerges only when government stays out of our lives. It is, as one Mises writer explained it, "it is a condition where the person may do whatever he desires." Or as Lew Rockwell put it, again at the Mises Institute,

The definition of freedom is not complicated. Freedom means that which the government does not control... The Mises Institute has made a new backpack for students, and it sports the following quotation from Mises: “Government is the negation of liberty.”

We can better understand the libertarian definition of freedom by comparing it to one of its main competitors, namely the leftist/progressivist conception of freedom.

Libertarianism and Leftism

For leftists and progressives, government exists to secure personal happiness and rights. While happiness is often understood in terms of personal autonomy, including limitless freedom for each person to pursue his or her own private vision of the good, it usually ends up mandating one vision of happiness for all and privileging one group of rights above another. This is why some of the most influential leftists ended up being statists, using the language of individualism to justify an oppressive communitarianism. Rousseau set the template for the left’s strange amalgam of individualism and totalitarianism in The Social Contract when he declared, “whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be constrained to do so by the whole body, which means nothing other than that he shall be forced to be free.” In our day, this same tension has emerged in what Sohrab Ahmari has called, “the correlation between limitless freedom and the all-encompassing state.” Given this emphasis on freedom without limits, the leftist view of freedom often reduces to the following:

  • The freedom to do what we want and to have our desires, no matter how transgressive, underwritten and validated by the state.

Libertarians dissent from this leftist conception of freedom, which attaches a god-like power to the state. But libertarians still share much in common with leftists. Many libertarians would agree with leftists that the proper object of human society is to secure happiness and autonomy; they simply believe this is best achieved in the absence of a state (anarcho-capitalism) or in a very minimal, “night-watchman” style government (moderate libertarianism).

Libertarians and leftists also converge in the revolutionary impulse. Believing in the malleability and perfectibility of man, leftists have tended to give inordinate attention in achieving optimal conditions through a planned society. That is why leftist thinkers have historically favored revolutions to achieve the perfect system. Anarcho-capitalists share this revolutionary impulse with the left, although for them utopia will be achieved, not through the correct political system, but through the dismantling all political systems. Whereas leftists have historically used revolution to achieve the perfect state, many anarcho-capitalists seek revolution to achieve the perfect non-state. While their goals are different, both seek to realize utopia this side of the Second Coming through reshaping the world, remaking society according to a specific plan.

Libertarians are less teleological (goal oriented) than leftists in their view of freedom, preferring a negative view of freedom that emphasizes the absence of external restraints. Believing that the state does not have a mandate to enforce one vision of the good life, they prefer to talk about freedom from rather than freedom to. As one libertarian recently texted me when discussing the Ron Paul article referenced above:

Liberty is private property, both of your own body and your possessions.  Note that it is freedom *from* the arbitrary will of another and not freedom *to* do anything you want. The latter is licentiousness and libertinism.

Libertarianism and Anarchy

The attempt to distance libertarianism from licentiousness should be kept in mind when considering what libertarians mean by “anarchy.” For libertarian anarcho-capitalists, “anarchy” is not mayhem and jungle law; rather it denotes a condition out of which genuine order can emerge. The writings of anarcho-capitalists like Murray Rothbard, Hans-Hermann Hoppe, and Lew Rockwell are full of various historical examples and arguments proving that property rights can be secured without government via the use of private security agencies and voluntary organizations. They argue that because anarchy and capitalism are natural to man, in a society without external laws people will naturally tend towards the type of contractual self-regulation needed to secure free markets and achieve a well-ordered society. Thus, true anarchy will lead, not to disorder, but to order and even utopia. Ron Paul reflected this view when he urged people to think positively about anarchy, claiming, “is a great idea,” and asking us “to trust in the spontaneous order that emerges when the state does not intervene in human volition and human cooperation.”

The Dark Side of Utopia

It all sounds like a great theory. But how should Christians think about the libertarian definition of freedom in general, and anarcho-capitalism in particular? We will explore these questions in a follow-up post. We will see that freedom for the sake of freedom is bondage. Moreover, we will learn that thinkers from classical antiquity through to the Christian era have offered a rich discourse on the meaning of freedom. This discourse avoids the extremes of both leftism and libertarianism by rooting freedom in virtue, ordered love, and transcendent morals. But for now, let’s close by seeing what happened at these libertarian experiments with utopia.

The community at Galt’s Gulch Chile descended into squabbling and fraud, with libertarians eventually seeking help from government to arbitrate their disputes.

The fate of the Mexican community “Anarchapulco,” was even more tragic. It imploded into debauchery, fragmentation, and chaos before ultimately resulting in death and despair. Because the project was documented by a videographer, the HBO series The Anarchists offers a terrifying glimpse of what anarchy looks like in practice.

Writing for the Acton Institute, David Bahnsen put his finger on the basic problem revealed by the HBO series:

Missing from the Acapulco anarchy movement was a framework for liberty rooted in morality and ordered love. Ultimately, what was palpably present in the Acapulco anarchy movement was the fate of all human autonomy untethered from the law of God and awareness of the basic human condition….

Those of us who value the concept of liberty are wise to consider the bondage that futile human efforts at liberty paradoxically create when said liberty is uprooted from the soil of morality, love, character, and biblical wisdom that must sustain it. And that is what The Anarchists is really about—bondage, not liberty.

Further Reading

has a Master’s in Historical Theology from King’s College London and a Master’s in Library Science through the University of Oklahoma. He is the blog and media managing editor for the Fellowship of St. James, and a regular contributor to Touchstone and Salvo. His work has featured in a variety of publications, including the Colson Center, World Magazine, Sky News, and the Mars Hill Audio Journal, in addition to his having worked as a ghost-writer for celebrities. Phillips is the author of Saints and Scoundrels: From King Herod to Solzhenitsyn (Canon Press, 2012), Gratitude in Life's Trenches: How to Experience the Good Life Even When Everything Is Going Wrong (Ancient Faith, 2020), and Rediscovering the Goodness of Creation: A Manuel for Recovering Gnostics (Ancient Faith, forthcoming 2023). He is a contributor to Pain, Suffering and Resilience: Orthodox Christian Perspectives (Sebastian Press, 2018), and Finding the Golden Key: Essays Towards a Recovery of the Sacramental Imagination (Eighth Day Press, forthcoming 2023). He has been featured as a guest on radio and television and has offered presentations and seminars at universities and conferences throughout the world. He operates a blog at www.robinmarkphillips.com.

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