A Reasonable Anarchy

I have found a new term with which to define my political philosophy. This comes as a surprise, because I inadvertently stumbled upon it while searching for the title of Jedediah Purdy’s new book, A Tolerable Anarchy.  Disappointed, because the phrase hints at a moral defense of the creative destruction inherent to capitalism, I mistakenly thought the precocious law professor had seized the rhetorical high-ground, and left wild souls like myself without so eloquent a tool.  I’m happy to see I was mistaken. I find “a reasonable anarchy” much preferable to confusing terms like anarcho-capitalism, which comes across as more Chomsky than David Friedman, and the phrase bears a strong resemblance to the rational anarchism advocated by Professor de la Paz in the Moon is a Harsh Mistress.  It also implies that the benefits of massively scaled coordination to mutual benefit may have limits.  The provision of public goods is a problem.  Anarchy it is, but within the confines of demonstrably sound, and yes, in Mr. Purdy’s phrase, tolerable public goods. 

But on further reflection, my misremembering “reasonable” for “tolerable” reveals a telling difference between the precocious law professor and myself, for tolerable connotes a sense of holding out, a sense of acceptance without endorsement.  Reasonable, however, conveys the sense that it’s a philosophy based on reason and evidence.  Whereas tolerable–it’s reminiscent of left-wing intellectuals who, betraying which side of the baseline they begin from, tolerate elements of capitalism, but want to keep the free-market beast caged–or better yet, harnessed amid progressive tax-schemes and a thousand and one regulations. 

Either way, despite the high-flown rhetoric of either side, this comes down to marketing.  My guess is that Mr. Purdy has written what will amount to the faint echo of Obama’s inaugural address: an unconvincingly bland attempt to unite the pioneer tradition in America with massive government action.  Picture Davy Crockett coming down from the Blue Ridge Mountains, a lake off to the side, he’s wielding folders full of orthodox policies straight out of the Democratic repertoire and the frontiersman speaks, “I have seen the American frontier! And it is the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.” 

Purdy offers similar vapid thoughts in today’s NYTimes Book review (a review of Beyond the Revolution by William Goetzmann):

“The Declaration of Independence is Obama’s touchstone, as it was Lincoln’s, because it anchors the country to a cosmopolitan vision of openness and equality. It has never been clearer that the country’s best self is a global inheritance, its worst a parochial self-certainty. A book of 19th-century ideas that portrays America as one part Google, one part melting pot and one part utopian dream may just have found its moment at the inauguration, eight years late, of the 21st century.”

An enterprising cultural anthropologist would document the left’s infatuation with Google.

Anyway, and incidentally, a quick google search on “reasonable anarchy” brings me to G. K. Chesterton’s book on Robert Browning. Describing the tendencies of Browning’s knaves, he writes, “These loose and mean characters speak of many things feverishly and vaguely; of one thing they always speak with confidence and composure, their relation to God. It may seem strange at first sight that those who have outlived the indulgence, and not only of every law, but of every reasonable anarchy, should still rely so simply upon the indulgence of divine perfection.” 

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