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Liberal Arts

Philosopher: Do Anarchists Have a Point?

By Sally Acharya

Does the state have a right to demand that you pay taxes? Are governments really formed by the consent of the governed? Students heard about anarchism from a visiting speaker, debated her points, and in some cases, stayed afterwards to mull over ideas after the Department of Philosophy and Religion talk, "Why Not Anarchism?"

Imagine that a group of neighbors showed up at doorsteps with guns and demanded that you give them money for protection. "We call people and groups who behave in that way criminal," said Dorota Mokrosinska, Departments of Philosophy, University of Amsterdam and University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill.

"Yet when the state charges us, by taxes, for protection and threatens us with sanctions, we don't question it. So apparently the state is entitled to do things to us that our neighbors are not."

Imagine, too, that you were on the beach, and a surfer ordered you to put out a cigarette. It would be seen as an unwarranted intrusion into your private rights — unless, she said, the surfer produced a police badge. Since the state is seen as having a right to exercise authority that neighbors don't, it seems appropriate, she said, to test the state's justification and ask if it passes the test.

One common defense of the state's rights, she said, is the argument from consent. The Declaration of Independence says that governments derive their powers from the consent of the government. "But how convincing is that?" she asked. "Do you recall giving your consent to the government?"

Consent can't be inferred simply from the fact that you've remained in a country, or from the fact that you use benefits, such as public roads, since there's little real possibility of leaving or avoiding the roads.

"To freely accept," she said, "we have to have the option of refusing. If we can't refuse benefits, then it can't be true that we accept them out of our free will."

Similarly, she shot down arguments stemming from the moral qualities of the state, the notion that a debt of gratitude is owed, and the notion that an obligation is owed because of our identity as, say, Americans. Ethnicity can't create specific obligations, or we could also be said to have obligations derived from being a particular gender or race.

If the state can't be shown to have a right to demand our obedience, "we cannot refute what anarchists said. Perhaps we should take anarchism more seriously," she said. There are prudent, practical reasons to comply with state authority, but that doesn't constitute a right, she said.

Students and some faculty members were quick to debate her points and ask for clarifications.

Afterwards, senior Justin Butler, SPA '10, who is writing his honor's thesis on anarchism, fired questions raised by the talk and by his own research at Professor Jeffrey Reiman, as others spoke with Mokrosinska.

The talk wasn't part of a class, but it was the kind of event that the department sponsors regularly to elicit discussion and encourage questions. As Reiman said with a grin, "We try to trick people into learning things."