Reasoned Authority and the Limitations of Anarcho-Libertarianism

Will Sarvis
5 min readMar 16, 2023


(this essay originally appeared in the October 2015 issue of The Ethical Spectacle)

During the 1950s, my father and Edward Abbey used to burn down billboards in New Mexico. This was their rebellion against admittedly gaudy tourist trap advertisements. But it was also a good bit of belated juvenile vandalism. They were both graduate students at UNM, even if they acted younger than their years. I’ve lived among many of their latter day imitators out here in Eugene, Oregon, whose Bible was Abbey’s most famous book, The Monkey Wrench Gang; more or less an inspirational blueprint for eco-sabotage.

This urban billboard is regulated by city code. Today, 46 out of the 50 United States allow billboards, but regulations vary widely from state to state (author’s photo, 2023).

The Eugene “radicals” sometimes called themselves Green Anarchists, and their philosophy overlapped (to some extent) with libertarianism. Anarchists have more in common with the Left, and libertarians with the Right, but both are subsets of a common tradition, particularly prevalent in parts of the American West. Both nurture fantasies of living without government.

Aversion to authority is hardly an American invention, even if we have a unique variation upon the theme. The nation was born in rebellion, but almost immediately there were new norms of authority demanding conformity. Early nonconformists often headed west to escape the constraints of east coast society. The American West quickly became the bastion of mythological American “freedom,” which legacy now mainly resides among various people harboring utopian ideas of unfettered existence.

The western maverick populated the novels of Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour, Hollywood westerns, and the western turned urban in the personages of renegade policemen like Dirty Harry (set in San Francisco). But “freedom” in the American frontier has been as mythological as it has been ironic. Patricia Limerick showed us this many years ago in her classic book, Legacy of Conquest: the West has historically been the region most dependent upon the federal government (not free from it). Just imagine the West without all its federal government-financed projects: no hydroelectric dams, no massive irrigation systems, no drinking water supplies for cities, no interstate highway system spanning vast spaces unpopulated with tax-paying patrons, et cetera. Yet the myth lives on, quite powerfully.

Libertarianism provides an important check on authoritarianism, but beyond that, the philosophy falls apart rather quickly. Famous “anarchist” Edward Abbey always had government jobs with the National Park Service and various state universities, similar to a self-proclaimed libertarian colleague of mine who has never earned a non-government salary, and refuses to pay back his government-subsidized student loans. It is no surprise that rancher Clive Bundy bums a living off of federal grazing lands in Nevada while claiming not to be obligated to pay federal grazing fees; never mind that aforementioned federal services make his lifestyle possible in the first place. Even more absurdly, Bundy claims his family has used the land for a century — but what about the natives who were there thousands of years before that? And, by the way, who cleared the natives off the land so Bundy’s family could ranch? The federal military.

The most common flaws among anarchist-libertarians are their hypocrisy and simplemindedness. Just think of all those red states receiving billions of dollars in annual agricultural subsidies. And they were calling Obama a socialist? But as the Green Anarchists demonstrated, the lefties have their variation upon the theme.

The self-described anarchists of Eugene advocated the collapse of the state while enjoying its fruits. As their 2006–2007 federal trials for eco-sabotage demonstrated, many came from middle class and even wealthy backgrounds. Among the eco-arsonists was a former college student turned homeowner. Another was preparing for medical school. Two had volunteered for charities, an activity that has conspicuously characterized the comfortable bourgeoisie since the Victorian era. One had inherited so much money that, before sentencing, he had already paid a quarter-million dollars to one of the insurance companies, compensating for his arson damage. More recently, a eco-protestor’s father (a financial advisor) flew in from Minneapolis to support his son’s legal defense.

Apparently Tom Wolfe’s Manhattan radical chic has moved to the suburban trust fund crowd. But all of this is little more than superficial street theater detracting from more serious concerns.

The libertarians deserve much credit for sounding the alarm over (for example) police militarization, years before mainstream America took notice. They’re also possibly ahead of the curve when it comes to decriminalization of narcotics. In general, they are an excellent reminder that the government should serve us, not dominate us. But the idea of living free of government authority at all, especially in the context of the nation-state (when the absence of a national military alone invites foreign invasion) is pure fantasy. It doesn’t take much of an intellect to appreciate this.

Questioning authority for its own sake immediately becomes a mindless conceit. An attractive alternative lies in one of the very inventors of questioning authority in Western culture: the Pharisees who live on in the Jewish rabbinical tradition. Here religious devotion was and is inseparable from intellectual inquiry, not to mention hard work and self-discipline. Such an approach mitigates the foolishness of self-righteous, impotent, moral outrage steeped in ignorance — one of several fountainheads of American rebelliousness since the 1960s. As the philosopher of law Scott J. Shapiro wrote, “A skeptical attitude toward authority is perhaps the healthiest stance to take. But such skepticism . . . can go too far.”

Or, as I tell my students, question authority like a Jew, not like a redneck. That includes those covering their red necks with dreadlocks.

We never approach true individual “freedom.” The American maverick and his contemporary offshoots are mostly romantic inventions. And the reason we are never free is because humans are fundamentally social creatures, and even the most rudimentary Paleolithic tribes featured intense peer pressure and group taboos (as do contemporary clans and tribes). Peer pressure and group taboo is the beginning of (oral) law, and administration of law (even if only verbally) is the beginning of government. In ancient tribal societies, the ultimate punishment was ostracism, often a death sentence in group-dependent tribal society. But even in modern society we cannot escape our social dependence, no matter how much we ignore our indirect ties to other people, whose contributions make our lives possible. Food for thought (no pun intended) the next time we visit grocery stores.

So, from inescapable peer pressure to the most over-bearing government, our sociality is inescapable. Given this, our best version of authority is reasoned authority.

As Mark Twain once wrote, “Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.” This comment was itself a legacy of Enlightenment era thinking. Philosophers like Locke, Montesquieu, Jefferson, and Madison all supported reasonable rebellion against unreasonable authority. But reasoning it out means not resorting to anarchist and libertarian fantasies.

By the way, Lady Bird Johnson did more to eliminate billboards through the 1965 Highway Beautification Act than any group of Monkeywrenchers ever did. I realize that legislation doesn’t sound as fun as arson, especially for suburbanites romanticizing various pseudo-iconoclasts. Such “outlaws” serve as vicarious agents of their prolonged childish rebelliousness, usually staged in comfortable college towns like Eugene or Boulder. These “anarchists” actually take pride in their childishness; but don’t worry, at least their trust funds will mature some day, even if they themselves do not.

Copyright © 2015, 2023 Will Sarvis. All rights reserved.



Will Sarvis

Author of Embracing Philanthropic Environmentalism and other books.