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An insult to anarchists

Late last week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid expressed his frustration at the failure of the Senate to pass a measure related to energy efficiency. Speaking from the Senate floor, Sen. Reid took the opportunity to broadly criticize tea party Republicans in particular. “The anarchists have taken over,” he explained. “They’ve taken over the House, and now they’ve taken over the Senate… People who don’t believe in government—and that’s what the tea party is all about—are winning, and that’s a shame.” 

Although this seems like hyperbole, last week was not the first time that Sen. Reid has compared tea party Republicans to anarchists. “When I was in school, I studied government. Prior to World War I and after World War II, we had the anarchists,” he said in an NPR interview last summer. “Now, they were violent... They did damage to property and they did physical damage to people. The modern anarchists don’t do that. That’s the tea party. But they have the same philosophy as the early anarchists. They do not believe in government.” Unfortunately for Sen. Reid, statements such as these demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding of both anarchism and the tea party.

For one thing, Sen. Reid seems to be operating on a remarkably incomplete understanding of the history of anarchism as a political philosophy. When he refers simply to “the anarchists” before World War I and after World War II, for instance, he most likely has in mind 19th century Marxists, such as those implicated in the Haymarket affair, and the German Baader-Meinhof Gang, Movement 2 June and the Revolutionary Cells of the 1970s and 80s. If this is indeed his view of anarchists, then Sen. Reid is right to condemn the reprehensible violence committed by these deluded groups of self-styled revolutionary intellectuals. He is wrong, however, in his assumption that they are in any way representative of a larger, homogenous tradition in political philosophy.

At the same time as violent German anarchists were blowing up buildings and taking hostages in West Berlin, for instance, their American contemporaries were arguing against use of violence as a means of affecting political change. In a 1967 debate with Susan Sontag and Hannah Arendt, influential American anarcho-syndicalist and libertarian socialist Noam Chomsky conceded that violence could be justified under certain circumstances. “If violence could be shown to lead to the overthrow of lasting suppression of human life… that would be a justification for violence,” he granted. Nonetheless, Chomsky used several historical examples to argue that such a justification “has not been shown at all.” And the particularly American strand of individualist anarchism, which arguably began with men like Lysander Spooner and Benjamin Tucker in the mid-19th century and which was revitalized by Murray N. Rothbard roughly a hundred years later, based its entire opposition to the state on the grounds that government was a monopolized form of institutionalized violence. The ideas of men like Chomsky, Spooner, Tucker and Rothbard are no doubt controversial and open to debate, but to condemn them for the crimes of the terrorist anarchists is analogous to condemning all forms of government for the crimes of Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia.

Sen. Reid’s view of the tea party is equally hard to accept. The decentralized nature of the tea party makes it difficult to describe the movement in general terms, but supporters and opponents alike would probably agree that it is characterized by its hardcore focus on the Constitution. The website of the Tea Party Patriots, for instance, indicates that the group’s mission is, in part, to restore the “American principle… of constitutionally limited government.” It also advertises events such as Constitution Week, Constitution Academy and “Patriots & Popcorn,” which evidently attempts to inspire communities by screening films about the Constitutional Convention of 1787. On the other end of the political spectrum, one of the chief criticisms of the tea party is that its supporters misunderstand or misinterpret the Constitution. Whether one supports or rejects the movement, it is virtually impossible to reconcile its devotion to a founding document of government with any sort of recognizable anarchist impulse.

Sen. Reid is not known for strength in political philosophy. In a revealing 2008 interview with minarchist YouTube personality and documentarian Jan Helfeld, he repeatedly told his interviewer that the payment of taxes is voluntary in the United States. Say what you will about taxes, but Irwin Schiff can tell you that paying them is definitely not voluntary. A critic might object to this column on the grounds that Sen. Reid is a politician, and not a political philosopher. To them, then, the fact that he is more concerned with politics than he is with political philosophy makes perfect sense.

But isn’t that part of the problem? 

Chris Bassil, Trinity ’12, is currently working in Boston, Mass. His column runs every other Tuesday. Send Chris a message on Twitter @HamsterdamEcon.

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