"Amazingly bad," Sartwell said. "It's shocking, really. The way the book came about was that I taught a basic political philosophy course for three or four years. Every time I read Rousseau, Locke or Hobbes...I'm saying to myself, 'This is so bad. Don't people realize how bad this is?'"I think what goes wrong is that these figures – Locke or Hobbes or Hume – are so secure in their position [that there must be a state] that all they have to do is wave in that direction and people will follow."One function of anarchism, it seems to me, is to put forward challenges to them. There have been some who have tried. Robert Nozick at least tried to articulate an alternative. There have been people who have tried to bring anarchism to the mainstream, but it's always been marginalised because it sounds so crazy to people."
"I think the moral argument is the stronger," he said. "That's the center of my commitment, anyway. The problem with utilitarian arguments is how do you really judge? Look at what's happening now. How do you really know what the effects of what the US government is doing now are going to be, say, over a century? You can't really know. I like to turn those utilitarian arguments around on state. You start talking about the disasters of states. Holocausts. Genocides. World wars."
"It's not completely unimaginable,' Sartwell ventured, 'but you have to have a very organized body of people to come up with nuclear weapons or the Final Solution. It's going to have to be something that is, in effect, a state anyway. And in fact, the only bodies of people who have perpetuated death on such a scale are states."
"Spooner is so amazing on that," Sartwell agreed. "You give him some minimal concept of natural rights, and everything else flows from that. It's almost Euclidean. As a philosophy professor, I worry about its conceptual underpinnings. I can't formulate a philosophy that makes natural rights obvious."
"You don't have to have a concept of natural rights to say that," Sartwell points out. "But natural rights are a compelling way to formulate why that should be."
"I have a certain reading of this American libertarian or anti-authoritarian tradition that does trace from the Protest Reformation. Luther's teaching was that each person is his own priest and that there need be no hierarchy between a believer and the believer's god. It was a very radical idea. And very anti-Catholic, obviously. Although there are elements of that kind of dissent even from the very early days of Christianity."Luther himself allied with the state powers and princes in northern Europe to survive the onslaught of the Catholic Church, which is why the Reformation was more successful than other rebellions had been previously. But many radical figures in the Reformation extended that kind of anti-authoritarianism to political institutions. This would include groups that later came to the US, such as the Mennonites; Anabaptists; and, even later, the Quakers."These are radical groups that came here with an individualist kind of ethos. So there was an immensely complicated religious geography in early America. But it is primarily British Protestant of one sort or another. This is central to the whole American political tradition and central to the idea of natural rights. John Locke, for example, comes from a Puritan background. But this early American anti-authoritarianism is a more emotional, focused, and less educated version of individualism, and it is faith-based..."It is a way of articulating individual rights in the early republic that focuses on religious practices and respect for different practices and different believers. This yields an entirely different conception of what a human being is on Earth and what a human being owes to any authority. Each of us is equally assigned the task of our own conscience and conducting our own moral life."For example, a Quaker believes, 'My conscience is not answerable to any outside authority.' This thought drove Lucretia Mott [a great 19th-century feminist and abolitionist], drove early feminism and early abolitionism, and is secularised in Thoreau's Civil Disobedience..."This is the history I'm trying to uncover, not that I'm the first to try to do this. I want to draw out these connections in early 19th-century reform movements... And you can see this also as the growth of libertarianism. It is a very noble history, actually."
"William Lloyd Garrison is a fascinating figure. He is one of the most important political figures in 19th-century America. He is an absolute pacifist, one of the first to articulate it, and a radical individualist of this very Protestant variety. He's over-the-top for Jesus. Lysander Spooner, by contrast, is a deist or an atheist, perhaps... He's got a completely different orientation, but still emerges out of the same tradition and has the same basic commitment to individualism."
"They tended to be," Sartwell said. "Absolutely. You can't be an individualist and be an advocate of slavery, not with any consistency, anyway."
"Every abstraction from the world is...an abstraction from the world, a digression or diversion from it, and a devaluation of it. For millennia, we have been bundling things together to try to comprehend them; now the point is to appreciate their strangenesses, their excesses to categorization. Individualism is an attempt to remake the world by affirming it."
"Yeah, that sounds like me. Josiah Warren goes far with individualism. It's not just a philosophy for him. It's a metaphysic. He appreciates things in their specificity. You see the same thing in Thoreau. His commitment to the specific observation of the real world is total."That's what he's interested in. It's a whole way of comporting yourself in the universe. It's about really understanding the position you are in and not covering it up with abstractions."Such noble thoughts seem a long way from the Snowden-Manning-Abu Ghraib-drone fest we live in today. We finished our conversation where it began, marvelling at the backlash to Snowden and the encroachments of state power."
"Not enough people are asking those questions anymore!" Sartwell said.