Last year, the New York Times Magazine published an article pondering whether the “Libertarian Moment” has come at last. Five months before that, Pew reported that 50 percent of millennials identify as political independents. The same report also found that 51 percent of millennials favor gay marriage and 29 percent are religiously unaffiliated, dovetailing with other common libertarian views.
Libertarians are quickly becoming more prolific, at the very least in their cultural impact if not in absolute numbers. Living in D.C.’s periphery, I can’t help but notice it. At a party over the summer, a friend and I were chatting when a young woman came up and joined the discussion. As it happened, we started to share our political views, and she referred to herself an anarchist. Typically, when the term “anarchist” appears in the media, the discussion usually revolves around protests or acts of violence. The perpetrators are grungy looking guys, bearded and unkempt. She didn’t fit the usual stereotype. She seemed put-together and well-spoken, with nary a wild gleam in her eye.
Her reasoning, though, was intriguing. When talking about her beliefs, she said she thought “people do better on their own” and that externally imposed rules, whether from government or elsewhere, limit people’s attempts to live life to the fullest, or something to that effect. She was no anarchist, at least not in the old sense. She was a young reader of Reason Magazine.
So why keep the name? What does anarchism mean to her and many others? Apparently, it means an ideal world in which everyone is left to his own devices, free to create “voluntary societies,” where coercion is nonexistent. No social conservatism from the Right, and no political correctness from the Left. People live by the Non-Aggression Principle: “Don’t bother me, and I won’t bother you.”
That’s what my up-and-coming peers believe can happen, if we only get our civic scruples right. After all, they have done pretty well so far in their lives following just that ethos. They work hard, don’t drink too much, and avoid dicey people. They made it into select colleges and, after graduation, entered professional spheres. They entered the achievement competition and came out on top. They’re proud of themselves, but they’re not going to criticize the lagging and wayward 80 percent that didn’t make it to selective colleges and aim for the professional workplace. Let everybody make their own choices.
The attitude is less about tolerance than carelessness. Let’s return to the Pew report. One of its findings is that only around one in five millennials believes that most people can be trusted. That’s an extraordinary result, but it helps explain the libertarian posture. It is hard to be charitable toward or responsible to others if you mistrust them.
Here is the clearest difference between the new anarchists and their forebears. The original anarchists wanted to tear down the government in order to free the downtrodden; the new ones want to do so to free themselves. The lesser orders have nothing to do with it.
In Heretics, Chesterton wrote, “Self is the gorgon. Vanity sees it in the mirror of other men and lives. Pride studies it for itself and is turned to stone.” The new anarchism is, at its core, the adoration of self. In that sense, it really is anarchical. Just like any sort of worship that is not directed toward its true end, God, it will devour others and ultimately itself.
Ben Bristor is an undergraduate student studying economics and theology at Mount St. Mary's University.