Must Libertarianism Encompass a Government?

Must Libertarianism Encompass a Government?

by Christopher Awuku

January 16, 2008

A common remark made by some libertarians is that libertarianism must involve the presence of a government. Whilst frequenting websites and message boards on the World Wide Web, I have often seen people making such a statement. Seldom (if any) of these people have presented a rational explanation as to why libertarians must value a state. Market anarchism or anarcho-capitalism or voluntaryism (or any other label that one can assign to the ideology) is often viewed as being 'alien' to these people and thus not representative of (what they view to be) 'proper' libertarianism.

Such 'libertarians,' who claim that a belief in a state is intrinsic to libertarianism, are failing to acknowledge that codes of belief can branch off and form new strands. Let us examine Christianity, as an example of a belief system with a myriad of offshoots. The two chief Christian denominations in the world today are Catholicism and Anglicanism, so let us compare and contrast each branch of Christianity. Catholics, for example, believe in Purgatory as a 'median' state between heaven and hell. In general, Anglicans do not adhere to such a principle.

The British sovereign is the head of the Anglican Church, but Anglicans do not view her as being infallible. Naturally, the infallibility of the Pope, as head of the Catholic Church, is a central element of that denomination. Notwithstanding such differences, the fundamental code of beliefs between Catholicism and Anglicanism remains the same. This being that Jesus was the Son of God, the Holy Trinity, etc. Thus, Catholics and Anglicans are both Christians, despite the disparities between their respective values and practices. All that has occurred since the initial schism and breakaway is that Protestantism has taken root Christian principles to different conclusions.

If we scrutinise other schools of thought away from religion, then we can also note variances in principle. A utilitarian in the vein of Jeremy Bentham, a negative utilitarian and a rule utilitarian are evidently all utilitarians, notwithstanding the divergence of their tenets. I am not an ethicist; nonetheless, I am not aware of any rationale stating that a Benthamite utilitarian is a 'true utilitarian,' as opposed to a negative or rule utilitarian.

The science of anthropology is yet another example that can be drawn on. Prominent subsets of the study include archaeology and physical anthropology. Naturally, the focus of the science of anthropology is the study of human beings. Specialising on the history of modern humans by excavating artefacts, in addition to an emphasis on subjects such as race and human evolution, are naturally facets of the nature of human beings.

When accounting for the points I have raised in the previous paragraphs, a 'libertarianism and state are inherently connected' libertarian is faced with a dilemma. How can such a 'libertarian' claim that government is inherent to libertarian tenets, if one considers that base minarchist and market anarchist philosophy is effectively identical? If taking into account the viewpoints of rights-libertarians, then a supposed 'division' between minarchy and market anarchy is non-existent. A minarchist feels that government is coercive, and thus seeks to 'limit' the coercive power of the state, so that the innate compulsion linked with government is less detrimental to one's individual sovereignty. As market anarchists/voluntaryists, we obviously believe that since government equates with force, then the state should be abolished completely, as government only undermines our self-ownership. In kindness to rights-libertarian minarchists, I will spare them any derision of the intrinsic logical discrepancy within the viewpoint, concerning the denouncement and simultaneous acceptance of coercion. Nonetheless, a disparity between the prime principles of a minarchist or a market anarchist does not seem highly apparent.

It seems to me that these 'libertarians,' who utter that a reverence of the state has to be integral to libertarianism, are merely associating contemporary libertarian doctrine with the classical liberalism of the 19th Century. Personally, I do not feel that classical liberalism and modern libertarianism are indeed synonymous in every respect. Granted, each perspective does share a great number of similarities. Even still, modern libertarianism can be regarded as a fusion of the Austrian school of economics, 19th Century American individualist anarchism, Ayn Rand-like Objectivism, and classical liberalism. We can note then that classical liberalism was only one specific influence on the formation of libertarianism.

Moreover, classical liberalism espoused the concept of a minimum state at its heart. Prominent figures in the history of classical liberalism, such as the American Founding Fathers, John Stuart Mill, Herbert Spencer, or William Gladstone all stressed a limited government. An anti-statist branch of classical liberalism was not highly noticeable, as market anarchism is within contemporary libertarianism. If we account for these differences, it is not correct to label modern libertarianism and 19th Century classical liberalism as tantamount.

If anything, only a consequentialist libertarian can credibly convey that libertarianism and government are joined at the hip. Such libertarians, in the manner of Milton Friedman or Friedrich Hayek, do not employ the non-initiation of force against person or property as the base of their system. Since consequentialist libertarians do not utilise the Non-Aggression Principle, they feel that a limited government is essential to enable the most widespread dissemination of utilitarian-like freedom.

I can see why the presence of a state is needed in this paradigm, since some logistical ability is required to ensure that the bulk of people experience liberty. Perhaps in the consequentialist setting, the state might tax a rich individual to provide welfare to a poorer person.

However, rights-libertarians do not believe in the forcible redistribution of wealth, even if it is to enhance somebody else's liberty. The paramount goal to a rights-libertarian is to live by one's self-ownership. As market anarchists, we would not assert that a government is required for (or even adept at) safeguarding our rights to person and property. Individuals should be free to purchase and obtain protection services from competitors within a free market. As government is bungling (and does not work, as the late, great Harry Browne continually stated), it is not logically consistent to denounce governmental services and still value a state police force, armed forces and judicial system. Evidently, such institutions in the real world are still administered by government. Government cannot always be inept and work proficiently at the same time!

'Libertarians' who affirm that government and libertarianism are intrinsically linked really have to present some rationale to support their point. If these people feel that market anarchism is an obfuscation or corruption of libertarianism, then they are grossly misguided. Market anarchy holds the advantage since (as I alluded to in an earlier paragraph) it is a more logically thorough brand of libertarianism. If anything, it is the 'libertarians' mentioning that libertarianism has to encompass a government that are obfuscating the libertarian message. It really should be asked, why should it matter if libertarianism possesses statist and anti-statist wings?

It is entirely natural for differing branches of thought to arise from an original standpoint. Such a thing would occur as people think differently, perceive life individually and thus would hold different perspectives of the world. If we analyse our shared libertarianism, then we can manifestly see that a multiplicity of schools of thought exist within the ideology. Neo-libertarianism came to prominence at the time of the 2003 invasion of Iraq . These libertarians naturally question the traditionally non-interventionist stance of paleo-libertarianism and thus feel that a libertarian government should intervene in parts of the world that are less free. Geo-libertarians reject the private ownership of natural resources in a libertarian society and assert that all in the community should commonly own them.

Did neo-libertarians hold no right at all to scrutinise pre-existing paleo-libertarian beliefs? Did geo-libertarians, as Georgists, hold no right to question whether private individuals should own natural resources? Of course not. All human opinions or perspectives can be subjected to scrutiny, as human beings do not see eye to eye in every matter.

Ultimately, diversity in life is usual and, if one thinks about it, no healthy person really expects uniformity in all things. A football (or soccer) fan in England might feel that Steven Gerrard is the best player in the Premier League. Another may think that Cesc Fabregas is. A third person could believe that Cristiano Ronaldo is. A person can believe that 'Star Wars IV: A New Hope' was the best sci-fi film ever made; another could feel that 'Terminator II' was. Both sets of people would accept each other's opinion, in the end, since these issues cannot really be objectively proven. Stating that libertarianism has to involve a state, and rebuking anybody who thinks otherwise, really denotes a fear of difference. In an absolute sense, at the least, such a thing is hardly healthy.

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Columns on STR: 26

Christopher Awuku lives in the UK and works in the voluntary/community sector.  He runs a market anarchist blog at