Power and the Main Threat to Liberty

William Gillis’s review of my book Right-Wing Collectivism is complimentary but critical on many points and mainly on one central point to which he continually returns. He believes that my focus on state power has blinded me to other forms of power, and therefore to the urgency of a more comprehensive anarchism.

If the book as a whole were a little stronger Right-Wing Collectivism would have stood as a wonderful counterbalance to the focuses of leftist antifascists,” he writes. Instead, he says: “Tucker’s focus on the state creates its own kind of myopia. If the left fails to really grapple with how anti-market fascism ultimately is, Tucker fails to really grapple with the problem of nationalism outside of formal statist contexts.”

And it’s not just nationalism, in the author’s view; my supposed myopia extends to a huge range of social power: corporate, familial, gender, religion, and so on. I neglect these and therefore default back to anti-statism and therefore market economics as the solution to all life problems.

Stirner vs. Rothbard

This is why he regrets my literary rally for liberalism (classically understood) as an alternative to fascism. The only alternative is anarchism, in his view, which he sees as a comprehensive and complete opposition to all forms of power, not just state power, on grounds that power always diminishes the human person’s full potential, attacks core rights, and blunts the capacity for humanity to rise to new levels of universal fulfilment.

You can gather from this statement that my critic’s view of anarchism is of a different school from mine, more Max Stirner than Albert Jay Nock, more Mikhail Bakunin than Murray Rothbard. In more colloquial terms, Gillis is the very archetype of the left anarchism whereas he would regard me (and I disagree) as a rightist, which is why he wrote such a detailed critique.

Let me concede a point here: it is possible for libertarians to overlysimplify social and political dynamics into a clean binary of the state vs. the individual, as if to suggest that there is only one problematic form of power and no other. Being steeped in libertarian literature, you can come away with this impression. But actually, it’s not the case that any major thinker in this tradition (not even Rothbard) ever wrote anything like: “The only power in this world that should concern us as human beings is state power.” I’ve searched writings of hundreds of years and failed to find a statement like this. The focus on the state in this line of thinking is limited to political thought: here the libertarian concern is to reduce the state to the point of elimination if technically possible. Still, with a single-minded focus on the evil of state power – my book is probably an example – a broader rendering of the anti-statist perspective is common, as if the libertarian mind ought not concern itself with any other injustice.

I’m pretty sure that at some point in my own intellectual development, I fell into this tendency. It is unsubtle and, ultimately, unsustainable in light of real human experience. The state is always the main enemy of course but this is because it is the ultimate institutionalization, entrenchment, and monopolization of power as a means of human control. It is the main enemy because it is the single worst expression of the fundamental evil, which is power itself. (I’m going to avoid plunging into the pit of a pedantic discussion of definitions of power, exploitation, and aggression, because – how to put this? – it’s too boring and such discussions never really solve anything.)

Forms of Power

At the same time, it’s true that power can take other forms. There are bad, even horrible, bosses. There are abusive parents. There are manipulative and psychologically violent preachers of religious doctrine. There are terrible relationships in which one spouse lords it over another. These abuses can be instantiated in cultural habits, institutionalized in cultural values, practiced as an extension of widely accepted religious postulates, and so on. Indeed, there’s so much trouble in the world, as Bob Marley said. There is nothing “unlibertarian” about conceding this and fighting against all bad things in the name of the emancipation of the human spirit.

Libertarians should not feel a threat to their worldview by granting all of this. It’s also true that problematic kinds of power are not limited to coercive forms; there are many ways to control others and ruin their lives. Would you rather have a planter stolen off your porch or be unjustly smeared all over the internet as a pedophile? The former path involves coercion against your ownership rights; the latter path, though purely voluntary, represents the destruction of all your hopes and dreams about the only life you have.

And why is it not a problem for liberalism to recognize this? It is the goal of liberalism to diminish human suffering and increase opportunities for happiness, a condition which is linked to the right to choose, act, speak, and live in peace. There are many threats to that end, not all of which are brought about by the state. I like the formulation of F.A. Hayek: what we favor is a society of peace in which violence and the threat of violence is minimized as much as possible. That’s as good a summary of liberal ambition as any I’ve heard (it’s better than question-begging formulations that fit on laptop stickers).

Anarchism In All Things?

It is a concern for these factors that leads William Gilis to declare: “It is not enough just to free the market from the state, we must work to ensure that values of cosmopolitanism and compassion dominate the whole of humanity…. The state is bad, but it is only the apex predator in a vast ecosystem of power dynamics in our society.”

My problem with the comprehensive anarchism of this variety is that it can be even more unsubtle and reckless than a reductionist and brutalist view of liberty. The brutalist ignores the general problem of man’s inhumanity to man , as well as the liberal ethos of commercial life, to think only on one specific instance, namely state power over the individual will to act, while the Stirnerite view is so promiscuous in its critique of power relationships that it loses all practical meaning, and, even more dangerously, prepares the ground for the political demand to seek redress in ways that actually enhance state power at the expense of practical liberty.

If every form of human relationship is masking some form of exploitation, you can be tempted by the illiberal conviction that nothing works, nothing is beautiful, no kinds of human relationships are truly mutually beneficial. Society cannot manage itself. All hierarchies, all disparities in authority, all fundamental inequalities that persist over time cry out to be ended. And if so, we face a much bigger problem than merely keeping the state in its place. We need radical social reconstruction. The only real fix, in this case, is to deploy massive force in the form of state power – even if you imagine that you will eventually reduce and eliminate the state power (and this dream, no surprise, turns out to be unrealizable in practice).

The Problem of Bosses

A solid example concerns the relationship between the employer and the employee. An anarchism of the sort imagined by my critic would have all labor-related contracts based on equal power, such that no one is begging for a job or holding onto a job due to lack of other options. The entire world should operate like the most ideal peer-to-peer structure, so that hierarchies are flattened and everyone is equal.

To be sure, I wrote an entire book on the peer-to-peer economy that celebrated the possibility of radical disintermediation. Perhaps this is where we are headed technologically. At the same time, we need to keep in mind that the primary problem of mediation within current economic structures is due to force, namely the cartelization of banking, securities regulation, and the need to establish trust relationships that facilitate trade. To the extent such intermediating emerges from voluntary choice, they deserve defense, not condemnation. And, sorry, this is true even when voluntary choices involve “hierarchies,” “authorities,” and so on.

The problem of the bad boss is an example of an instance of exploitation that seems to be baked into the institutional relationship of capital and labor but which might actually trace to state intervention that grants employers disproportionate power over workers. Health insurance and mandated benefits are a great example. They were legislatively established in the name of workers’ rights but what they actually do is create worker dependencies.

Many people today report that they would gladly leave their jobs and get work elsewhere, but they fear the loss of health care. Employers today know this and think of themselves holding this reality over workers’ heads. This leads workers to put up with bad working conditions, humiliating relationships, and lower salaries than they should. This is the reality within our unfree labor markets. What began as programs to empower workers have actually done the opposite – a typical instance of a government intervention that realizes the opposite of its stated purpose.

Many Depredations of the State

This entire analysis requires a clear-headed focus on the remarkable poison that the state introduces into human relationships. A superficial look would say with the Marxian tradition that bosses are inherently exploitative. A deeper look shows that the exploitation is due not to the labor contract as such – the labor contract in a free market should be as mutually rewarding as any other exchange –  but to government programs that mandate terms and conditions that the market itself would not likely include. The same kind of critique can be made of all kinds of “corporate power.” Regulatory interventions in financial markets, industrial structure, intellectual property, and confiscatory taxation all conspire to reduce competition and infuse incumbent market players with privilege they would not otherwise enjoy.

An anti-statist libertarianism is uniquely prepared to see these factors, whereas a promiscuous anarchism is so quick merely to condemn all instances of power that the underlying causes and effects evaporate from consciousness, and, over time, prepare the way for too great a tolerance for state intervention. Consider the case of John Stuart Mill, whose libertarianism was solid until he introduced a generalized principle against all “harm,” regardless of whether this harm was an actual physical imposition against person and property. This harm principle prepared the way for his eventual warming up to socialist policies, flipping his early allegiance to liberalism in favor of its opposite.

We’ve seen this same tendency occurring within libertarian circles in the last ten years. As the alt-right rose within its ranks (or invaded them, depending on your of view), the mirror image of the brutalist outlook has come to be called the “libertarian left,” which is distinguished by the same vagaries that led to the apostasy of John Stuart Mill. And this is precisely why traditional liberalism has been so focussed not on perfecting the world, and inveighing against all known injustice, but rather observing, containing, and restraining the biggest known problem of all, which is the state itself.

Tradeoff Between Society and State

To erect a wall between society and the state occupied the energies of liberals from the high Middle Ages through modern times. This is why Albert Jay Nock called his book “Our Enemy, the State.” To contain it is a gigantic job, to say the least. This agenda led to the Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, the principles of religious freedom, free speech, women’s rights, the anti-slavery cause, trial by jury, international law, and so on. These are hard-won victories. To muddle the liberal idea with a generalized opposition to “a vast ecosystem of power dynamics” is to evade the most obvious and destructive enemy of all and, ultimately, to endanger the institutional foundation of the realizable free society itself.

“The state is just one expression of power,” says my critic, to which I answer that it is the most institutionalized, most monopolized, most destructive, most murderous, most capable of committing terrible crimes on its own but also covering up and backing so many other forms of power in society. That is why it is the focus of our energies. If we fail to focus, we create other problems. Try to end “corporate power,” the “patriarchy,” psychological abuse, and all existing “harm” that you perceive in society and you could end up building the power and authority of the most harmful institution of all.


Permit me a final departure on the topic of cosmopolitanism, which my critic makes part of his credo. I understand why. A point shared among fascists of all stripes is that the natural state of human society is tribal segregation. They believe political structures should affirm and back this impulse. But the historical trajectory of the marketplace has been different. It has brought together people in commercial exchange regardless of race, religion, language, and geography. And this is the very origin of large cities in the world, the integration of peoples and the reduction of tribal loyalties, much to the chagrin of fascists and nationalists of all sorts. No amount of moral cajoling is going to prevent people from trading for their mutual betterment, which is why the fascists ultimately default to state power to achieve their tribalist aims.

Cosmopolitanism does indeed describe the ethos of the marketplace, which is precisely why Ludwig von Mises invoked the term in his 1929 book Liberalism. My concern here: the word works as a descriptor but not as a moral imperative. I see no reason to look down on people who cling to rural life, prefer to be around their religious tribe, and even (shudder!) like to speak with people of their own language and race. This can come from a decent place in the human heart and doesn’t necessarily reflect a fascistic political impulse. Peaceful trade does drive the world toward integration, this is true, but inner loyalties also tend toward preserving differences among people. To condemn this in whole strikes me as intolerant.

Nor do we need to overlook the complex relationship between tribe and cultural and demographic diffusion. In a free society, everyone can develop different forms of attachment: one pattern in commercial life, one pattern in domestic life, one pattern regarding faith and family. There is no real threat here to liberalism. In fact, I don’t know why this should be so complicated: the rule is that anything peaceful goes. No amount of moral cajoling will succeed in forcing people to give up attachments of the human heart. The consistent defender of freedom needs to have the wherewithal to stand up for the rights of all forms of peaceful preference, even that which contradicts his or her preferred aesthetic.


Liberalism (and there is a liberal anarchism, and I consider myself to be an adherent) does not seek a perfect society but merely an adaptable one that can improve on the margin through experimentation and evolution in the right direction. Until the state is contained and out of the way, society cannot evolve, which is another reason to prioritize and focus.

Franz Oppenheimer, Albert Jay Nock, and Frank Chodorov postulated a trade off between state power and social power – and by “social power” they meant not exploitation but rather that the locus of decision making should rest with voluntary institutions outside the state. Legalized plunder vs. property rights and human choice. This is the essential binary. I believe this to be true. Liberalism – whether of the classical or anarchist variety – has always affirmed this.

It used to be a cliche to observe that libertarianism is neither left nor right. I don’t hear that much anymore, so it needs to be restated. Mostly it needs to be understood. Left and right emerged in the 19th century as a revolt against liberalism. They each favored different forms of statism to push back against the progress liberty was making possible. It remains the same today.

The beauty of the liberal program is that it seeks to protect society against socialism and fascism, war and segregation, poverty and apartheid, cartelization and stagnation, and therefore to establish the best chance for the flourishing of the good life on earth.

Given all the threats we face today, from the left and right, the focus on opposing statism of all sorts holds out the best hope of protecting human rights and liberties against the main and primary threat, today and always, and thereby creating the best possible social template for the realization of the dreams we share for universal peace and prosperity.

Sign up here to be notified of new articles from Jeffrey A. Tucker and AIER.

Jeffrey A. Tucker

Jeffrey A. Tucker is Editorial Director for the American Institute for Economic Research. He is the author of many thousands of articles in the scholarly and popular press and eight books in 5 languages. He speaks widely on topics of economics, technology, social philosophy, and culture. He is available for speaking and interviews via his emailTw | FB | LinkedIn