Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

How Anarchism Works

Why Eliminate Government?

Some trace the origins of anarchism to the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu, the founder of Taoism, who taught that people should live in balance with nature in order to achieve happiness, or to the Indian holy men who gave up their property so they could devote themselves to spiritual enlightenment. In classical Greece, the philosopher Zeno argued that people would do better without government interfering in their lives, and that if they were reasonable and moral enough, courts and police would be unnecessary. His ideas sound a lot like those of modern anarchists [source: Buckley].

For a brief period in the mid-1600s, a group of English peasant farmers known as the Diggers, who were tired of the turmoil caused by the English Civil War, tried to live without government and cultivate public land without getting permission. Gerrard Winstanley, a Christian radical who was founder of the Digger movement, articulated its principles in a 1649 pamphlet titled "Truth Lifting Up Its Head Above Scandals." Winstanley argued that power inevitably corrupts, property is incompatible with liberty, and that people could only be truly happy in a society without rulers and laws, where they could do what they believed to be right [source: Rosemont, et al.].

As membership in the community doubled in a year, both the government and landowners saw the Diggers as a threat, and their commune soon was broken up [source: Campbell].

But the idea the Diggers hit upon — that it was possible to live without a government — didn't die off. In the late 1700s, the English philosopher William Godwin argued that government was an inherently corrupt influence upon people.

In the place of a national government, Godwin envisioned a decentralized society, in which people would live in small autonomous communities where they could govern themselves with as little politics as possible. Godwin also thought that accumulation of wealth and property was a bad thing, because it enabled some to have power over others. He favored a system similar to the one later advocated by Karl Marx, in which people contributed what they could and took what they needed. Goodwin thought technological progress would make such a society possible, by reducing the time that people would need to work to produce goods [source: Rosemont, et al.].