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The State Debate: Some or None?

October 29, 2008

Tags Free MarketsPhilosophy and MethodologyPolitical Theory

[Anarchism/Minarchism: Is a Government Part of a Free Country? Edited by Roderick T. Long and Tibor R. Machan. Ashgate, 2008. Xi + 196 pages. An MP3 audio version of this book review, read by Dr. Floy Lilley, is available for download.]


Libertarians of course believe in the free market; if you find someone who favors the government provision of medical care or education, e.g., you know immediately that he is not a full-fledged libertarian. But how far can one take the free market? Can it handle absolutely all the essential services of society, including defense and justice? Here libertarians split: some, the individualist anarchists, answer yes, but others, often termed minarchists, decline to go this far. (Samuel Konkin coined the term "minarchism," but he is not mentioned in this book.) They contend that these services need to be supplied by a monopoly agency: within a given territory, this agency can forcibly exclude other agencies from competing with it. Often, but not always, as Tibor Machan anxiously reminds us, minarchists favor taxation to pay for these services. Anarchism/Minarchism offers a very useful survey of this controversy, with essays, mostly by philosophers, on both sides.

In one respect, though, the book is surprising. The most frequent criticism of anarchism among economists is that defense and justice are public goods, i.e., goods characterized by jointness of supply and nonexcludability, which the free market cannot efficiently supply. Though Roderick Long briefly mentions the public-goods argument, it receives little attention in the book. Quite the contrary, the principal criticism of anarchism posed by the minarchists here represented is that a free society requires an objective, uniform law code, a demand anarchism cannot satisfy. 1

The minarchists derive this criticism in large part from Ayn Rand. John Roger Lee (now, I regret to say, deceased) poses the essential point concisely: "Anarchistic libertarianism illegitimately and self-defeatingly presupposes the existence of contract law in its account of how law and its enforcement would come to exist and have an ongoing role in an anarchistic society" (p. 18). Lee's argument rests on a suppressed and highly contestable premise. Why does the existence of contract law require a state to create it? As we shall see later, the view that the state created contract law is false; but here, it is important to realize that Lee has advanced a much more extreme claim. His assertion is that contract law conceptually requires a state.

Why should one believe such a thing? Suppose people for the most part accept a libertarian scheme of rights — this, by the way, was the only circumstance in which Murray Rothbard considered viable an anarchist polity — would they not have, contrary to Lee, contract law without a state? (The issue, once more, is for now not whether this is likely but whether it is possible.)

Lee does not think so, but a thought experiment he offers suggests otherwise. He writes, "Farmer A and farmer B live and farm on Plots [sic] of land A and B respectively. Plots of land A and B are similar in size and fertility and a creek separates them" (p. 15). Lee suggests that if Farmer B crosses Farmer A's plot, he has not trespassed; absent a [state created] legal system, each one remains at perfect liberty toward the other.

Commendably, he recognizes that some people "may react negatively to his claim." Have not the farmers each acquired legitimate title to his land? Lee meets this objection with a mere denial. Natural rights are "metaphorical at best" (p. 19). I suspect that most readers will not find this simple-minded legal positivism, asserted as if were an obvious truth, acceptable.

More plausibly, William R. Thomas refrains from saying that law without the state is impossible. Rather, he thinks it merely unlikely to eventuate. Would not differences of opinion about proper procedures be liable to result in violent clashes? If anarchists, like Roy Childs, respond that the protection agencies, competing to gain business from consumers, would peacefully resolve their differences, he responds that

Childs has failed to address the empirical question of what it would mean for a rights-respecting government to interact with another putative law-enforcing body within the government's own territory. Childs seems to assume that the legitimacy of the private defense agency's actions will be plain on their face. (p. 46)

Is it not Thomas, rather than his anarchist critic, who has made an unexamined assumption? He takes for granted that the dominant agency, i.e., the "government" that he supports, not directly seeing the legitimacy of a competing agency's action, may at once proceed with violence against it. No doubt many Objectivists, who think that the best defense is a good offense, will think that the dominant agency may respond immediately to a competitor's action against its clients, unless the legitimacy of that action is plain on its face; but those who have not imbibed the Randian gospel may differ with this. All that Thomas has really done in response to the anarchist suggestion of peaceful resolution is to deny that what he deems a legitimate government must act in so pacific a manner.

Roderick Long strikes exactly the right note in response to Thomas's argument:

But under market anarchism, aren't there a variety of competing legal standards and legal enforcers, with none having final say? Yes, absolutely. But how does this differ from a minarchist legal system? Or indeed from any legal system? … just about every legal system in human history has comprised a variety of competing legal standards and legal enforcers — and the more polycentric ones have generally been the more successful. (p. 115, emphasis in original) 2

John Hasnas, a lawyer as well as a philosopher, rightly notes that whether "government is necessary is not an abstract metaphysical contention. It is an entirely practical question concerning the delivery of goods and services" (p. 112). If one considers the historical record, the matter at issue has a transparent resolution:

The proper response to this [defense of the need for government] is obvious: look around. Those of us who live in the United States or the any of the British Commonwealth countries live under an extremely sophisticated and subtle scheme of rules, very few of which were created by government. (p. 113)

Thomas raises another problem. What about coercive agencies that do not respect rights? If anarchists answer that competition from law-abiding agency will eliminate them, he replies in turn that, even if this happens, the process might take too long:

A supermarket that dominates the local market may come under new and destructive management. A new and better source of produce may not instantly appear … this process [by which a better supermarket appears] may take years, if it happens at all, and it can be very lumpy. (p. 47, emphasis in original)

With supermarkets, we may be willing to put up with the wait; but we cannot do the same with protection. Here bad agencies inflict unjustified violence, and a counter to them, a legitimate government, must be available to take immediate action against them.

The sum and substance of Thomas's contention is that protection is too important a matter to be left to the free market. His argument resembles one advanced by socialists who say that medicine ought not to be left in the hands of private providers. Can profit-seeking doctors be entrusted with life and death decisions? If quack doctors rely on life-threatening procedures, might it not take years before the market weeds them out? Surely we need a public-spirited government agency to suppress them. No doubt Thomas would reject this argument for medicine; but one wonders how he would distinguish this argument from his own.

Tibor Machan, in a characteristically erudite essay, offers his services a peacemaker between anarchists and minarchists.

I [Machan] will reconsider this dispute here and show that both individualist anarchists — those who reject government but embrace law and order for a society — and minarchists — those who support a properly limited government as the agency for administering it — are right and their differences are mostly apparent. (p. 61)

One eagerly waits to see how Machan will defend this remarkable claim. I fear that one must wait in vain. The bulk of his essay consists of a vigorous defense of minarchism and assault on anarchism. If minarchism is right and anarchism wrong, why does he say at the same time that the differences between the two views are merely apparent?

Machan finds deficient the view that protection is nothing but a business enterprise.

To reduce all human institutions to enterprises runs the same risks as any other type of artificial reductionism. Governments — and, indeed, defense agencies, justice agencies or what have you — are political institutions … The question doesn't concern commerce but the nature of what Aristotle called the polis, the organized human community. (p. 77)

Machan's assertion has much to be said for it; but why does he imagine it a point in favor of minarchism? Whether a protection agency acts only for commercial reasons does not seem conceptually dependent on whether that agency monopolizes force in a given territory.

Also surprising is a statement that Machan makes about Max Weber's definition of the state. Weber said that the "state is a human community that successfully claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory" (p. 65). Machan asks us to notice that "Weber talks here of the state as a human community in the fashion of Hegel, Marx, Green, and Bosanquet rather than of classical liberals such as Locke, Mill, or Spencer" (p. 65). I do not think that Weber's language here justifies attributing to him a controversial view about human community: all he means by the phrase is a group of people, hardly a notion to occasion a battle between advocates of the state as a "holistic, organic community of human beings" (p. 65) and their individualist opponents. (By the way, what is Marx doing on this list?) Machan deserves praise, though, for noting that Bosanquet "opposed the welfare programs of the state in part on the ground that they are demoralizing. He agreed that government couldn't make people morally good, etc." (p. 75). This is often missed.

So far my critical remarks have been directed against the minarchist papers, and I shall not disguise from readers my view that the anarchists have much the better of the argument. But with characteristic fairness, I note a few problems in two of the anarchist essays. Jan Narveson says,

If A stole x from B and sold it to unwitting C, then A owes B something but it's not obvious that C does. On the contrary: A has falsely claimed that x belonged to A and so A not only owes something to B, but he also owes it to C: C's money back, for instance. Saddling C with a debt that he had no reason to think he owed anyone is not on. (p. 106)

This strikes me as grossly implausible. Suppose I steal a Rembrandt from you and sell it to an innocent museum director. Does one really want to say that you cannot demand that the museum director return the painting but must content yourself with an action for damages against me for its monetary value? What if I do not have enough money to pay you? Are you then out of luck? Innocent buyers fare especially well on Narveson's view. They have no duty to return the stolen property and may also proceed against the thief to get back the money they have paid for this property.

Aeon Skoble has an important essay that uses the iterated Prisoner's Dilemma to defend anarchism. He develops his arguments on this score more fully in his excellent Deleting the State (Open Court, 2008). But he makes in passing some remarks about Robert Nozick's view of the minimal state that are egregiously wrong.

"I shall not disguise from readers my view that the anarchists have much the better of the argument."

Skoble says, "Nozick argues that it would not be rights-violating for this 'de facto monopoly' [i.e., minimal state] to coerce payment for the services" (p. 90). Not so: people are free to leave and join other agencies, although Nozick thinks it will generally be against their interest to do so. Also incorrect is the claim that "[protection] companies would be inclined to find their interests best served by preemptive attack, and that the known proclivity towards striking first when this seemed advantageous would, at the least, weaken everyone's ability to protect their rights, and at worse destroy society" (p. 90).

Nozick does think that an agency may use force to prevent a competing agency from using a risky decision procedure on its clients; but the battle of preemptively striking agencies that Skoble conjures up is his own invention. How he can have so completely misconstrued Anarchy, State, and Utopia is baffling.

I have not been able to discuss all the essays in this book. Of the others, Lester Hunt's argument that the state needs justification merits careful study, as does Charles Johnson's incisive demonstration that libertarian rights theory leaves no proper role for the state.

This review originally appeared in The Mises Review, Fall 2008.


  • 1. The minarchists here do not claim that objective law is a public good.
  • 2. Long does not direct his paper specifically to Thomas, but what he says applies to Thomas's points.

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