The Minarchist"s Dilemma

For several years I championed minarchy. Even before I learned the term, I embraced the notion that a limited government, which protected individuals from force and fraud, but stays within the limits of that function, would best serve society.

I understood that the government should not do at least 90% of what it did. I opposed conscription, drug laws, business regulations, welfare programs, unprovoked foreign interventions and central banking. The government, as I saw it, should only maintain a small military, a small police force, and a court system, in order to protect the basic rights of people. When first considering it, I viewed the prospect of anarchy almost as frightening as totalitarianism.

I've changed my mind. I do not know at all what society would look like without a state. But I cannot imagine how its absence would breed more ills than what we have now.

Before I came to this change in thinking, I went through many philosophical transformations. I heard a talk by Samuel Edward Konkin III, now recently departed, who at the time advocated a stateless society more convincingly than anyone I had before heard. He was also, I later learned, the man who coined the term, 'minarchy.'

The dilemma I always had, when contemplating the state's existence per se, was envisioning how a state could possibly protect rights better than it did in supplying healthcare, stamping out drug abuse, or providing education. I understood the reasons why a coercive institution such as the state has inevitable difficulties in resisting corruption and delivering on its promises. I grasped the basic economics, I read the history, I witnessed it in practice.

Or, rather, malpractice.

I comprehended that the state, properly defined, possessed a monopoly on force. This always puzzled me. It obviously should not have a monopoly on defensive force (I totally understood the arguments against gun control). So what kind of force does it monopolize?

The initiation of force. The precise disease I envisioned the ideal state to combat.

I knew that government created monopolies in utilities, education, and other services. I understood that cartels, protected from competition, ended up controlling much more of the economy than they would in a free market.

And yet, I trusted the minimal, libertarian state to restrain itself, and to refrain from using its own powers to expand its 'market share' over coercion beyond what the free market would provide.

I realized, on a subliminal level, that any 'state' that obeyed within the confines of non-aggression, barred from the powers of taxation and incapable of forbidding others from competing with it, would cease to be an actual state at all.

I realized, having learned basic American history, that the original American republic, so heavily revered by the minarchists for its unprecedented limits, grew and expanded enormously at its every opportunity. I wondered how I could trust states, however small, not to grow into big ones. It seemed to be in their interest, throughout history.

So my philosophical dilemma with minarchism, which I defended, and anarchism, which I opposed yet better understood, was with me for several years. But I put up with it because I thought it was impractical to believe in anarchy, which would never exist. I might as well shoot for the smallest, least oppressive government possible.

My pragmatic reasons for giving the state its perfunctory respect ended shortly after 9/11. I thought to myself, 'Okay, Anthony, here's your chance to see if your principles can withstand today's terrible events. It's wartime, and you believe that the government has only one function ' to protect its citizens from force and fraud.'

I read the reactions to 9/11 written by hard-core libertarians and anarchists. I read the reactions written by 'small-government-conservative-libertarians.'

The anarchists and hard-core ones tended to say the government should, if anything, send people out to find the terrorists and arrest them.

The more 'moderate' libertarians tended to support the war in Afghanistan.

It wasn't very long until I realized that the government's response to 9/11 had no hope in improving anything. In Afghanistan, it immediately embarked on the same kind of policy that incited 9/11 in the first place. At home, it violated all sorts of civil liberties that I considered indispensable in a free country, and unnecessary sacrifices for a genuine battle against terrorism.

A few months after 9/11, it all came together for me. Of course an institution that forcefully extracts two trillion dollars from Americans every year, systematically imprisons peaceful people, and kills countless human beings in other countries for no good reason is going to have difficulty correctly addressing the crises that result from its killing. Of course a government that kills more than ten thousand people a year by prohibiting them from obtaining life-saving medicines is going to have problems accounting for innocent lives in its wartime calculations.

Not all statists or state agents are 'evil' ' far from it. But it is a very dangerous idea that certain select people ' whether through elections or inheritance ' should monopolize the power to use preemptive force against innocent people, and should ultimately only be accountable to itself.

I do not think we will see a stateless society in my lifetime. But I am sure we will not see a state that conforms to the minarchists' ideals. The closer we get, the better, but I see no reason not to aspire for the best government as Thoreau imagined it: none at all. It's certainly more consistently idealistic than what the minarchists imagine, and yet it's at least possible, whereas the existence of a lasting, minimal state is a hopeless fantasy.

I believe that minarchists, in their advocacy and intellectual contributions, do far more good than harm. But sometimes their most frustrating inconstancies and difficulties in connecting with other people stem from their faith in the minimal state, a conceptual exception that takes bites from their conceptual rule.

Whether we call ourselves anarchists or not is not of primary importance. Nevertheless, we should make a habit of questioning the state as a general abstraction every time we ponder its particulars. We should challenge its basic premises, even as we critique its consequences. The more we engage in this mental exercise ' as decadent as it may seem to the loyal minarchist ' the more we will understand the reasons behind the state's failures, and the more we can productively explain to others why they occur.

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Anthony Gregory's picture
Columns on STR: 41

Anthony Gregory is a Research Analyst at The Independent Institute, a Policy Advisor at the Future of Freedom Foundation, and a columnist at LewRockwell.com. His website is AnthonyGregory.com.