Libertarianism and Minarchism


The above link goes to an interesting piece by David Boaz of Cato, trying to explain why libertarians are not “anti-government.” Of course, the kind of libertarian to which he refers is the minarchist libertarian (and I think sometimes minarchists get a worse rap than they should from anarchists, who I don’t think should try to alienate those with whom we can make loose coalitions. However, pretty much every minarchist that I know of couches his or her justification for minarchism in the same type of language as most individualist anarchists: that no one ought to initiate force against another, consent, etc. Thus, they are not internally consistent, and that is what anarchists rag on them for. But, I don’t think the minarchist position is necessarily inconsistent if the justification changes. If, say, one instead justified their political system based on what kind of system minimized coercion overall and could show that a minarchist system did so, then they would be consistent. Of course, a big contributing factor for why many people believe the state should be abolished is that it is too dangerous to tolerate).

Boaz first deals with the idea that what libertarians want weak government, but rejects that because libertarians want a government strong enough “to carry out its legitimate functions,” which he sees as functions to “protect us from outside threats, deter or punish criminals, and settle the disputes that will inevitably arise among neighbors…” How would the libertarian anarchist respond to this? A well known quote is “A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take from you everything you have.” I think this same consideration applies to David Boaz’s “legitimate” government. A single entity powerful enough to deter or punish all criminals also has the power to become the greatest criminal. That is partially why market anarchists support a polycentric legal order: there would be multiple entities with the ability to deter and punish crime for their clients in their communities, but not so big or monopolized that they can force their customers to pay them with impunity.

Boaz then discusses the idea that what libertarians want is small government, but finds that that might confuse people:

Not “weak government,” then. How about “small government”? Lots of people, including many libertarians, like that phrase to describe libertarian views. And it has a certain plausibility. We rail against “big government,” so we must prefer small government, or “less government.” Of course, we wouldn’t want a government too small to deter military threats or apprehend criminals. And Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne, Jr., offers us this comparison: “a dictatorship in which the government provides no social security, health, welfare or pension programs of any kind” and “levies relatively low taxes that go almost entirely toward the support of large military and secret police forces that regularly kill or jail people for their political or religious views” or “a democracy with open elections and full freedom of speech and religion [which] levies higher taxes than the dictatorship to support an extensive welfare state.”

“The first country might technically have a ‘smaller government,’” Dionne writes, “but it undoubtedly is not a free society. The second country would have a ‘bigger government,’ but it is indeed a free society.”

Now there are several problems with this comparison, not least Dionne’s apparent view that high taxes don’t limit the freedom of those forced to pay them. But our concern here is the term “smaller government.” Measured as a percentage of GDP or by the number of employees, the second government may well be larger than the first. Measured by its power and control over individuals and society, however, the first government is doubtless larger. Thus, as long as the term is properly understood, it’s reasonable for libertarians to endorse “smaller government.” But Dionne’s criticism should remind us that the term may not be well understood.

So, Boaz settles on the term that what libertarians generally want is limited, constitutional government formed by the consent of the governed. But what he doesn’t explain is why this has to be a single entity with monopoly powers. He says, “Peaceful coexistence and voluntary cooperation require an institution to protect us from outside threats, deter or punish criminals, and settle the disputes that will inevitably arise among neighbors— a government, in short” [emphasis added]. Why a single institution is necessary is not explained in the article, and is probably beyond its scope, but it is definitely something that needs to be addressed.

But perhaps most important, Boaz’s definition of government can be satisfied by an anarchistic, polycentric legal order (indeed, I think that it the only system that can satisfy it). If we think of government as an entity or entities that provide protection from criminals and dispute resolution, and is something based on the consent of the governed, then a polycentric legal order fits that definition. It is limited because it can only do what individuals contract it to do, and has an actual limitation with teeth if people are able to take their business elsewhere relatively easily. It is constitutional because it is actually contractual, not based on some mythical social contract. And, finally, it is consensual because the individuals forming it are the ones living under it.

So, minarchists should take a closer look at polycentric legal orders, as they might like what they find.

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3 responses »

  1. This reminds me of what Roderick Long said about becoming an anarchist. He was convinced that a society required a single institution to maintain law and order, but once he began to see a polycentric legal order itself as such an institution, he abandoned minarchism.

  2. Pingback: Private Prisons Are Guaranteed Inmates by the State » Anarcho-Buddy! Anarcho-Buddy!

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