Libertarianism 3: The Self-Defeating Nature of Minarchism

This post is part of my ongoing series on Christian libertarianism.  Earlier posts in this series can be found here and here

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In earlier posts I have focused my attention on some basic features of libertarian thought.  The impression these posts might give is that libertarianism is monolithic, with self-identifying libertarians sharing wide agreement on most issues.  Spend enough time talking to libertarians, surfing their blogs, and perusing Tom Woods’s daily email messages to subscribers, however, and you’ll discover that there are substantial, sometimes quite contentious, disagreements among libertarians. Over the next week I want to explore the variety within libertarianism. My hope is that this exploration will illuminate some bedrock questions that libertarians forces us to consider.

Recall from my last blog post that the non-aggression principle (NAP) prohibits anyone from threatening or committing violence unless that person is acting in self-defense against unjust aggression. Libertarians argue that states regularly violate the NAP when they enact policies and tax citizens to fund programs that politicians deem necessary, all with the implicit threat of state violence hanging in the background.  Following from this starting point, libertarians divide over the normative conclusion that this arguments points us toward.  If we assume for the moment that libertarians are correct that states regularly violate the NAP, what is the alternative?  Here libertarianism divides into roughly two camps:

Minarchists argue that the alternative is to circumscribe the power of the state so that it plays a very limited role, far more limited than that of most modern states.

Anarchists (“Anarcho-libertarians”) argue that the alternative is to eliminate the state altogether, to fashion a society built entirely on voluntary contract and consensual exchange.

Historically, minarchism has been the more prominent perspective in mainstream academic circles.  This is the libertarianism of Milton Friedman, F.A. Hayek, and Robert Nozick. Institutionally, the Mont Pelerin Society (founded in 1947 by, among others, Ludwig Von Mises, Hayek, and Friedman) is a major intellectual source of minarchist thought, as is the Cato Institute. Anarcho-libertarianism, while less prominent in the mainstream, is a perspective embraced by a cluster of revisionists economists, historians, and scholars mostly affiliated with the Mises Institute, a libertarian think tank based in Auburn, AL. It’s fair to say that Murray Rothbard is the father figure of modern anarcho-libertarianism.  Contemporary scholars who represent this perspective include Tom Woods, Robert Murphy, and Hans-Hermann Hoppe. The line between minarchism and anarcholibertarianism can be overdrawn, and historically there have been strong alliances forged between libertarians on both sides of the divide that blur the philosophical boundary. Still, disagreements between minarchists and anarcho-libs can get quite testy. I discovered this just yesterday while browsing an article written by Hoppe  in which he labels anyone who believes in the necessity of any state as a “fake libertarian” and goes on to ridicule those “honest but dim-witted libertarians” who vilify true libertarians (i.e. anarcholibertarians) and have abandoned the foundational principles of the libertarian cause.

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I’m planning a future post that explores anarcholibertarianism.  In this post I want to unpack minarchism further.  I’m going to foreground here my own non-libertarian conclusion about minarchism: while I find minarchism more defensible as an intellectual perspective than anarcholibertarianism, I also believe minarchism is self-defeating because it offers no philosophically consistent libertarian answer as to how a minimal state can exist that does not violate the NAP. It is the self-defeating nature of minarchism that makes anarcholibertarianism more interesting as a philosophical perspective, though a perspective that I find unpersuasive.  That’s for a future post.

So on to minarchism. Libertarians are critical of the wide-ranging encroachment of the state in many spheres of life: healthcare, education, social welfare, housing, the labor market, to name just a few. The minarchist solution to this problem is to limit the state to a much narrower set of functions, to turn the modern welfare state into a “minimal state.” A minimal state will not guarantee healthcare for all. It will not tell business owners a minimum wage they are required to pay their workers, nor will it promise poor families that they will receive tax-funded subsidies to buy food at the local supermarket. All of this of course begs the question: if the state should not do these things, what should the state do? Often minarchist visions of the minimal state lean toward something resembling a “night-watchman state.” Say minarchists, the state should provide a universal system of defense to members of the community: military and police protection. The state should also ensure that there is a legal system in place that can adjudicate property disputes and sanction individuals who violate the rights of others. That’s it.

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This limited state should feel familiar to anyone who has kept up with conservative-liberal debates in the United States over a host of public policy issue in the last two decades.  Progressives typically advocate for expansive state involvement, while conservatives frequently criticizing the state for overreach.  For the purpose of understanding minarchism, the key point is this: both sides agree that the state has some legitimate role to play. In this debate minarchists are much closer to the conservative end of the spectrum than the liberal. The debate is about where the line between justifiable and unjustifiable state action should be drawn.

But here is the problem that minarchists face: minarchists themselves draw this line in very different places, and minarchists do not always offer clear justification for granting the state the power that minarchists themselves say the minimal state should wield.  F.A. Hayek’s argument in The Road to Serfdom illustrates this problem (Note: Quotes from Hayek’s book are taken from F.A. Hayek The Road to Serfdom: Texts and Documents, the Definitive Edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007 [1944])). Hayek is one of the most influential economists of the 20th century, winner of the 1974 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics.  Born and educated in Austria, Hayek is a major figure of the Austrian School and an ardent defender of free market capitalism.  Immigrating to Britain in 1931 to serve on the faculty of the London School of Economics, Hayek wrote The Road to Serfdom as a prophetic warning to British (and later, American) politicians enamored by the promises of socialism.

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Hayek’s argument in Serfdom is relatively simple to summarize. Western societies value individual liberty.  In their quest to promote social justice liberal progressives have embraced socialism, a program that threatens to undermine individual liberty. Socialism threatens democracy, and the utopianism that advocates of socialism embrace is totalitarian at its core. A capitalist system built on free markets and private enterprise preserves individual liberty and in the long run will be more effective in furthering the social ends that progressives desire.

For Hayek then, states function properly when they preserve space wherein individuals are free to make their own choices, live their lives without external interference, and engage in uncoerced exchanges in a free and open market. States overreach when they interfere with markets in the name of “preserving equality” or “promoting social justice”:

“The dispute between the modern planners and their opponents is, therefore, not a dispute on whether we ought to choose intelligently between the various possible organizations of society; it is not a dispute on whether we ought to employ foresight and systematic thinking in planning our common affairs. It is a dispute about what is the best way of so doing.  The question is whether for this purpose it is better that the holder of coercive power should confine himself in general to creating conditions under which the knowledge and initiative of individuals are given the best scope so that they can plan most successfully; or whether a rational utilization of our resources requires central direction and organization of all our activities according to some consciously constructed ‘blueprint.'” (85)

At first glance, then, The Road to Serfdom appears to offer up an alternative vision of a minimalist state: the community we should want is a liberal community in which the state exists solely for the purpose of protecting individual liberty, protection embodied in the state’s commitment to preserving the freedom of market exchange. Says Hayek, “[i]t is necessary…that the parties in the market should be free to sell and buy at any price at which they can find a partner to the transaction and that anybody should be free to produce, sell, and buy anything that may be produced or sold at all” (86).  Hayek also argues that a free market will ensure that all trades are open to individuals on equal terms and will prohibit all efforts to control prices or quantities of particular commodities in ways that interfere with competition.

But having offered up what first appears to be a textbook example of a Night-watchman state, Hayek proceeds to defend a much more expansive role for the state in community life. While free competition precludes setting prices or interfering with quantities, Hayek insists that there might be good reasons for other sorts of intrusions into the free market. He argues in support of restrictions on “the allowed methods of production,” for example, so long as these restrictions apply equally to all producers:

“Though all such controls of the methods of production impose extra costs (i.e., make it necessary to use more resources to produce a given output), they may be well worth while.  To prohibit the use of certain poisonous substances or to require special precautions in their use, to limit working hours or to require certain sanitary arrangements, is fully compatible with the preservation of competition.  The only question here is whether in the particular instance the advantages gained are greater than the social costs which they impose.” (86-87)

But Hayek’s claim here begs the question: on what grounds are these intrusions in the free market justifiable?  If a factory owner is able to find individuals who consent to work 80 hours per week at an agreed upon wage, why is Hayek’s claim that it is acceptable to limit working hours not just another example of an overbearing state infringing on individual liberty? If a laborer is willing to accept a higher wage from an employer knowing that he will be required to work with a poisonous substance for which there are limited safeguards, what basis does Hayek offer for saying it is acceptable for the state to interfere with this transaction? Hayek’s suggestion that we simply weigh costs and benefits begs yet another question: why not simply subject other market interventions–those price controls and minimum wage guarantees that Hayek rejects, for example–to the same calculus?

Hayek’s minimalist state does not stop at simply regulating the workplace. Hayek also asserts that there are some goods for which a competitive free market is ill-suited for coordinating the costs and benefits of exchange:

“Thus neither the provision of signposts on the roads nor, in most circumstances, that of the roads themselves can be paid for by every individual user. Nor can certain harmful effects of deforestation, of some methods of farming, or of the smoke and noise of factories be confined to the owner of the property in question or to those who are willing to submit to the damage for an agreed compensation. In such instances we must find some substitute for the regulation of the price mechanism.” (87)

Hayek concludes that in such cases we may well need “the direct regulation of authority.” This is a conclusion that any progressive could love! There is a pragmatic edge to Hayek’s minarchist vision.  He speaks out against what he calls “the wooden insistence of some liberals” to the principle of laissez faire (71); for Hayek, social ends might well dictate some modest interventions are necessary.  But finally,  what can be charitably described as an intellectual “pivot” (or, less charitably, as a glaring contradiction), Hayek himself leaves the door open for something resembling a state-subsidized social welfare system in his minimalist state. In chapter nine of Serfdom, Hayek outlines two types of security that individuals seek: “first, security against severe physical privation, the certainty of a given minimum of sustenance for all; and, second, the security of a given standard of life, or of the relative position which one person or group enjoys compared with others; or, as we may put it briefly, the security of a minimum income and the security of the particular income a person is thought to deserve” (147-148). While no society can promise the second type of security to its members, Hayek insists that the first kind of security can be guaranteed:

“There is no reason why in a society which has reached the general level of wealth which ours has attained the first kind of security should not be guaranteed to all without endangering general freedom. There are difficult questions about the precise standard which should thus be assured; there is particularly the important question whether those who thus rely on the community should indefinitely enjoy all the same liberties as the rest. An incautious handling of these questions might well cause serious and perhaps even dangerous political problems; but there can be no doubt that some minimum of food, shelter, and clothing, sufficient to preserve health and the capacity to work, can be assured to everybody. Indeed, for a considerable part of the population of England this sort of security has long been achieved.” (148)

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Hayek proceeds to advocate for a state-sponsored system of comprehensive social insurance, insisting that there is no incompatibility between such a scheme and “the preservation of individual freedom.” But here again, Hayek’s argument begs the question: if a state-subsidized social insurance system is justifiable as a legitimate function of the minarchist state, what are the libertarian grounds for such a conclusion? The conclusions that Hayek reaches here overlap with the conclusions of liberals influenced by thinkers like John Rawls, but Rawlsian liberalism offers a theoretical basis that allows us to answer why the state may rightly intervene. On what basis does Hayek reach this conclusion? Hayek is silent.

All of this points toward my own conclusion: I believe that minarchism is self-defeating. To illustrate what I mean, recall the conversation from my last blog post, the libertarian critique of the federal SNAP program. Libertarians argue that when the state taxes some people to pay for benefits other people receive that the state is redistributing private property in a way that violates the rights of taxpayers; this is institutional theft (once again, the Society for the Care of Cute and Furry Creatures looms large).  But if this is so, it is exceedingly difficult to figure out why the minimalist state that Hayek himself envisions is not itself subject to the same judgment.  Set aside SNAP for the moment, and set aside Hayek’s own fairly expansive (at least by libertarian standards) state.  Imagine  a minarchist state that is much narrower, that Night-watchman state that is responsible only for protecting individual property rights.  Even with this extremely circumscribed state, this is the exchange that minarchists are defending:

Minarchist: “Citizen X, we are requiring you to submit to the authority of the state, which will be taking responsibility for providing for your personal protection and upholding your right to your property.  This state will provide protection to you and to all other individuals who live in your geographic area. For this service you and other individuals will be required to pay a tax that will go to cover the cost of military defense and the police protection that the state guarantees to you. The taxes you pay will also go to cover the administrative costs of a legal system that will adjudicate any conflicts over property rights should they occur.”

Citizen X: “I don’t want to submit to your authority.  I’m perfectly willing to purchase my own protection, and I’m more confident that a private personal defense contractor will provide better protective service to me than a bloated, inefficient state.  Further, I object to your demand that I pay taxes to subsidize the cost of the protective services you are providing to others.  If other people want your police protection, make them pay for it.  I see no reason why I must pay so that other people get access to the services you are offering.”

Minarchist: “We are imposing only a minimal burden on you, Citizen X.  We aren’t asking you to provide welfare benefits.  We’re telling you that you are required to fund a police service and military that will be responsible for protecting your liberty. This burden won’t be yours alone.  All community members who pay taxes will fund this service. But to be clear, if you refuse to pay we will send the police to your door, and they will arrest you.  Our legal system (which your tax funds will also subsidize) will hold you financially liable for your refusal to pay.  You’ll end up paying even more than what we are telling you to pay. Better to accept this burden now and pay up.”

Citizen X: “I don’t care how minimal you think this burden is.  It’s an unjustifiable burden.  If I don’t want to pay to fund this military and police service, what is that to you? If other members of the community are volunteering to pay these taxes, why should I care?  I do not consent, and I consider your threat of imprisonment and financial penalty to be an unjust act of aggression.”

What is the minarchist reply?  Minarchism itself offers no obvious way to explain why even the limited role that the minarchist state plays is not just another example of unjustifiable aggression. If aggression is defined as threatening or committing violence against another’s person or property, how is the minarchist exchange above not aggressive? If the injustice of SNAP is that it is a program that redistributes the resources of some citizens in a way that benefits others, how is a universal system of police protection not just as redistributive when it guarantees that all individuals in the community will have access to police services irrespective of their ability to pay? The state is mandating that citizen X pay taxes to fund a service that citizen X does not consent to.  The fact that most of us might find his preference for a private defense service  to be unwise does not make this act unaggressive. A free society does not protect individuals from their foolishness, does it?

While I do not think that minarchists like Hayek offer a compelling libertarian reason for affirming the actions of the minimalist state they defend, this is not to say that minarchists have neglected this challenge.  In my next blog post I’ll be digging into Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Nozick has gone further than anyone in trying to make the case that a minimal state can exist that does not violate the rights of individuals.  Following that, I’ll be turning my attention to anarcho-libertarianism, a perspective that does not face the same self-defeating problems I’ve described here.

 

 

 

 

 

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11 thoughts on “Libertarianism 3: The Self-Defeating Nature of Minarchism

  1. Minarchism is self-defeating only if Lockean social contract theory is self-defeating. Minarchist libertarians usually resort to some sort of contract theory that justifies a “night-watchman” state, e.g. the state can defend property because each individual has the natural right to do the same, etc. So I think you’d need to deal with contract theory in some way to make this criticism stick.

    Also, folks like Hayek aren’t strictly reasoning from the NAP. Hayek was an old-school classical liberal just seeking to maximize individual freedom, and he was willing to make pragmatic concessions here and there on things like the welfare state if he could get people to give up central planning.

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    • Good comment, Jason. I’m planning to devote part of my next blog post to addressing this valid observation. Nozick begins his thought experiment in _Anarchy, State, and Utopia_ in a Lockian state of nature and goes about as far as one can go, I think, in offering up a distinctively libertarian response to the challenge I’m trying to lay out here. I’m undecided whether or not I think his argument is successful. As for Hayek and the NAP, your comment suggests that you see Hayek’s defense of interventions in the free market as unprincipled rhetorical concessions on his part, not conclusions that flow well from the logic of his argument. Is my reading of your take accurate? I will note here that Nozick himself reaches some conclusions about social insurance in his book that will be surprising to some libertarians (Nozick himself expresses surprise at his conclusions). I prefer to see the interventions that Hayek defends not as rhetorical concessions to his opponents but as gestures pointing to a broader conception of what it means to be committed to freedom, a conception that Hayek himself doesn’t well develop in his quest to argue against planned economies.

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  2. Hello Vic,

    First, nice job of expressing your thoughts, summaries, and reactions to your sabbatical reading. I enjoy following along as you think through things.

    I agree wholeheartedly that Hayek writes in ways that clearly favor redistributive policies. Conversations among libertarians often lament that, while very much of his philosophy strikes a wonderful chord with our small-government hearts, his practical applications clearly stray from our own. The same goes for Adam Smith, who also spends a few passages talking about minimal redistribution schemes while clearly deriding “The Man of System.”

    I think I can reply in a straightforward way to the police/military issue. As high as Libertarians hold the concept of “individual liberty,” most hold up the concepts of “private property” and “enforcement of private contracts” as coexistent with said liberty. You must, then, have a top-down, sword wielder to protect citizens’ property (from both domestic and foreign entities) to enact a Libertarian country. Most would also argue that one needs NO OTHER ROLE of a top-down government. You are right that there might be citizens who would object to this redistribution to soldiers and police in the same way that Libertarians now object to current redistributions. My argument (and others’) would be that you absolutely cannot have a Libertarian state without protection of property rights.

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    • Hey Cole! Thanks for your reply. My larger project will benefit from continued discussions with libertarians like you and Jason. Quoting the last paragraph of your comment:

      “I think I can reply in a straightforward way to the police/military issue. As high as Libertarians hold the concept of “individual liberty,” most hold up the concepts of “private property” and “enforcement of private contracts” as coexistent with said liberty. You must, then, have a top-down, sword wielder to protect citizens’ property (from both domestic and foreign entities) to enact a Libertarian country. Most would also argue that one needs NO OTHER ROLE of a top-down government. You are right that there might be citizens who would object to this redistribution to soldiers and police in the same way that Libertarians now object to current redistributions. My argument (and others’) would be that you absolutely cannot have a Libertarian state without protection of property rights.”

      My reply: I see no reason why your second sentence in the above paragraph provides sufficient warrant for the conclusion you offer in your third sentence. Why would protection of private property and enforcement of private contracts require a “top-down” sword wielder? This is precisely what anarcholibertarians call into question. I’m curious why you don’t find the anarchist line persuasive. Note here, I don’t find it persuasive either, but I’m also not a libertarian.

      To put it another way, let’s imagine once again this conversation with Citizen X, but this time you get to play the role of the representative of this minimalist state:

      Cole: “Citizen X, we are requiring you to submit to the authority of the state, which will be taking responsibility for providing for your personal protection and upholding your right to your property. This state will provide protection to you and to all other individuals who live in your geographic area. For this service you and other individuals will be required to pay a tax that will go to cover the cost of military defense and the police protection that the state guarantees to you. The taxes you pay will also go to cover the administrative costs of a legal system that will adjudicate any conflicts over property rights should they occur.”

      Citizen X: “Cole, I don’t want to submit to the authority of the state you are representing. I’m perfectly willing to purchase my own protection, and I’m more confident that a private personal defense contractor will provide better protective service to me than a bloated, inefficient state. Further, I object to your demand that I pay taxes to subsidize the cost of the protective services you are providing to others. If other people want your police protection, make them pay for it. I see no reason why I must pay so that other people get access to the services you are offering.”

      Cole: “I’m all about the protection of your right to your property. This is precisely why the state is mandating that you pay taxes. In so doing you are ensuring that there is an effective system in place that protects your property rights and ensures that there is a fair system for adjudicating property claims should you come into conflict with other individuals. You don’t want brigands and ne’er-do-wells to steal your property, do you?”

      Citizen X: “No, of course I don’t. That’s why I recently entered into a contractual agreement with State Farm. Did you know that State Farm recently began offering private defense services to consumers? My local insurance agent, Vance, has assured me that the company has made contractual arrangements with Academi, which is providing State Farm the necessary equipment and personnel to protect subscribers like me. I hear that there are some other insurers that are considering competing with State Farm to offer these services. I’m more confident in State Farm than I am in your state, Cole. I decline your “services” and object to your demand.”

      Cole: “_________.”

      The blank above is what you need to fill in. What is your libertarian response to Citizen X? He is claiming that there is an alternative to this top-down state that you insist is necessary for preserving his property rights. He is accusing you of violating his property rights in insisting that your top-down state is something he must support.

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  3. How much I respect your independent thinking, Citizen X! Indeed, we do not need any government to bestow liberty on us; it’s inalienable. We need just enough government to make sure certain consequences of liberty are maintained, such as private property ownership and safety from others’ harm (construed minimally). The laws that facilitate this arrangement are abstracted above any one citizen; neither we nor any of our leaders are above these laws. So having tax-supported state police and military allows us to keep these minimal laws in place and subject any single officer or soldier to them.

    The property you own, Citizen X, was purchased or bartered in exchange for your work or other valuables. You are welcome to protect it any way you want, including hiring security personnel. However, the state must protect its citizens from potential harms emanating from you and your security personnel, and that will require levying taxes from all citizens-including you.

    The government-free society you advocate for is certainly possible, especially in smaller, insulated entities. However, long-term liberty in larger, developing countries is better served via explicit policies of grievance redress (for the minimal purposes mentioned) rather than vigilante justice.

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    • Cole, it sounds like your argument basically reduces to the claim that in larger communities populated by persons with complex, conflicting interests that the consequences of having no states (i.e. the consequences of embracing the anarchism that Citizen X wants) are worse than the consequences of having minimal states. I suspect that citizen X’s reply to you would be that to the degree that you admit the possibility of realizing an anarchist world filled with smaller, insulated entities that you, liberty-loving person that you are, should get on to the business of creating such a world.

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      • I see that I never replied to this: yes, indeed, Citizen X would likely parley just such a reply. It is cause for me to continue thinking about my original answer–is it principled or pragmatic?

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    • Cole wrote: I see that I never replied to this: yes, indeed, Citizen X would likely parley just such a reply. It is cause for me to continue thinking about my original answer–is it principled or pragmatic?

      Vic’s reply: I think your original reply is more pragmatic than principled. In the end if the primary critique of the State is that it violates the liberty of individuals by stealing property from them (through the power of taxation) it begs the question on what grounds any tax is morally justifiable. When libertarians like you, Cole, agree to support taxes that fund universal police and fire protection, public schools, and the like you are, in the eyes of anarchists, simply saying that a little bit of theft is okay. That is Rothbard’s point. This is the point I keep coming back to in our private conversations. I’m happy you are okay with being part of a community that requires taxpayers to pay for universal police and fire protection. I salute your pragmatism. However, I don’t think that you can justify your commitment to this on the basis of libertarian principle, at least as I have tried to outline it in this series. I’m entirely uncomfortable with a social philosophy premised on the idea that we need a little bit of theft to make society work (this is, I think, what your pragmatic acquiescence to minimal taxation is). To accept taxation as legitimate requires some other moral foundation that can explain why it is justifiable to require people to pay for benefits that other people receive. You and I already agree that this is justifiable. I simply think that my liberalism offers a basis for understanding why this is so, while your libertarianism requires you to simply accept it as a necessary evil.

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