I am an anarchist, and frequently in political philosophy discussions my visions and ideals of a leaderless society are rebuffed with the claim that people are not capable enough/ not to be trusted to govern and take care of themselves. If this is true, why do these same people go on to use this to "validate" their claims that a state must exist to keep these people from hurting each other, when in reality those in charge of the state are as human as the citizens and logically would fall victim to the same desires, needs, and wants as the citizens that are supposedly not able to govern themselves?

tl;dr Why say that a person is not to be trusted to govern himself, then go on to state that a person on the same spectrum of humanity as the first is fit to govern millions?

  • I made an edit. You may roll this back or continue editing. You can see the versions by clicking the "edited" link above. Welcome. Jul 27 '18 at 20:08
  • Thank you. I'm keeping the tl;dr because it needs to be clear that it's a summary of the preceding paragraph.
    – NoName
    Jul 27 '18 at 20:11
  • Roughly, the anarchist claims: “Every person should (be allowed to) govern themselves”, to which the opponent responds: “Not every person can govern themselves”. The latter is consistent with: “Some people can govern themselves” and also with “Some people can govern others/millions”. Also, it may be enough for the opponent to claim that groups of people (e.g. ‘the state’ or ‘the government’) can govern others/millions. Again, that’s consistent with “Not every person can govern themselves”.
    – MarkOxford
    Jul 28 '18 at 9:25
  • @MarkOxford A glaring problem with that is: Who is to decide whether one is capable enough to govern oneself? I've had many an opponent say that those such as the mentally ill are incapable of doing so, though I am mentally ill, and I'd say I'm an upstanding, decent person who most definitely takes care of himself.
    – NoName
    Jul 28 '18 at 14:11
  • “Who is to decide whether one is capable enough to govern oneself” That’s a fair-enough question – but not what I was getting at. You seemed to suggest in question that your opponent is contradiction herself when she says (a) “Not every person can govern themselves” and (b) “Some people can govern themselves/others/millions”. All I’m pointing out is that (a) and (b) are consistent. Whether they are true is a different question.
    – MarkOxford
    Jul 28 '18 at 14:22

You make a perfectly valid point captured by Juvenal's question from long ago :

Sed Quis Custodet Custodies? [But who is to guard the guards themselves] (Juvenal, c. AD 60-130)

Any familiarity with state-based politics should realise the sharpness of this question. Once you have a political group or person (president, monarch, parliament, Congress) separate from the governed, then that person or group can readily acquire interests of their own that either are different from those of the governed or even antagonistic to them. The great Italian theorists, Mosca, Pareto and Michels, none of them remotely an anarchist, made just this point, as did the economist, Joseph Schumpeter, who saw political groups as 'entrepreneurs' buying votes by selling popular policies in the their own interests of gaining or keeping power.

Comments :

1 The claim that 'people are not capable enough/ not to be trusted to govern and take care of themselves' [without the present of supreme coercive power] is vacuous out of context. It depends on the group.

2 A standard method of 'guarding the guards' is constitutionalism, historically perhaps most clearly exemplified in the US constitution with its separation of powers and system of checks and balances. Constitutionalism is certainly not without its value but its success depends on who operates the system : and it is useless when the separate powers collude and when checks and balances are not applied.

3 What critics of anarchism usually totally miss - I am not myself an anarchist - is that there is no need for a sudden, total transformation of society along anarchist lines. That probably would lead to disaster of many kinds. But gradualism, a process of political education and experience is possible in which people gradually learn (probably in small but widening groups) how to become co-operating or at least responsible anarchist citizens. Recall Rousseau's Social Contract (1763) when he said that a self-governing citizenry would need guidance in learning how to participate in a political society operating under the conditions of the general will (volonté générale). They would need to acquire, and should not be assumed unrealistically to have already, the necessary dispositions and skills. A Legislator would be needed (but how to find him or her ?) but would hold no political office. The Legislator works purely by persuasion and does not hold coercive power of any kind.


J.-J. Rousseau, The Social Contract, 1763, II.7.

Constitutionalism: Nomos XX, Published by New York University Press (1979) ISBN 10: 0814765734 ISBN 13: 9780814765739

Vile Mjc, Constitutionalism And The Separation Of Powers. Published by Clarendon Press Reprint, 1969.

Mosca, Pareto & Michels : see W.G. Runciman, Social Science and Political Theory (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1963.)

Coe, Richard D. & Wilber, Charles K. (editors), Capitalism And Democracy: Schumpter Revisited. ISBN 10: 0268007519 / ISBN 13: 9780268007515 Published by University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, 1985.

Jon Purkis, James Bowen, Twenty-first Century Anarchism: Unorthodox Ideas for the New Millennium (Global Issues), ISBN 10: 0304337439 / ISBN 13: 9780304337439 Published by Continuum International Publishi, 1997.

  • "sudden, total transformation of society along anarchist lines." - you are equating all the anarchists, but there are many views within the anarchism, not all of anarchists want an immediate great change.
    – rus9384
    Jul 28 '18 at 21:04
  • That is my whole point !
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Jul 28 '18 at 21:17
  • Now made clearer, thanks. I was well aware of the variety from discussions with an anarchist colleague. But I did not make the variety clear and I appreciate your prompt towards clarity. Best - Geoff
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Jul 28 '18 at 21:20
  • I can oppose it by "Why should people who already can govern themself and who can discuss the political problems and, therefore, have a right to do politics (not just vote for a party or a candidate), tolerate the government, which does not allow them to do politics, why should these people wait if they exist now?".
    – rus9384
    Jul 28 '18 at 21:21
  • Part of my point - 3 - was precisely that en masse such people probably do not exist now. People need to learn how to become co-operative or at least responsible anarchist citizens. Your point tells heavily against anyone who thinks that we can have, across the piece, 'anarchism now !'. But my point 3 specifically assumes, on behalf of the anarchist (or one type of anarchist, the gradualist who stresses the need for an educational process towards anarchist citizenship), that this is not so. Btw I enjoy and value your persistent and ingenious objections. Best - Geoff
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Jul 28 '18 at 21:53

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