Column by Per Bylund.
Exclusive to STR
Libertarians want to roll back government to a much less oppressive size. In this goal, libertarian minarchists and anarchists often stand together and aim for the same goals, at least short term. In a limited sense, this may not be such a stupid idea. After all, pushing back the powers of government is a good thing, is it not?
But what about those libertarians rejecting anarchism because they think government, for one reason or the other, is inevitable? Even with these, we can often stand shoulder to shoulder against numerous policies, political power, and oppression. After all, we all want to go in the same direction: push back and restrict the powers of government.
Furthermore, we have people like Robert Nozick, who famously argued that it might be possible that a government emerges without violating any individual’s rights. Even though it sounds like pure fiction, if the argument is sound, we are bound to accept it. But if it is true, should we not join these minarchist libertarians, be convinced by their arguments as we see the truth unfold before our very eyes, and embrace that limited government that is created without anybody’s rights being either violated or restricted?
The answer is no. Whether rights are violated or not does not matter in our view of what must be.
There are plenty of reasons to reject government in all its forms, almost regardless of the definition used. But even though many anarchist libertarians would agree with this, they join forces with minarchist libertarians in the struggle to restrict and roll back the constant push for more political power. There seem to be many reasons to do this, if not only to increase our numbers in the fight for what is right and just.
But there is a problem with joining forces with minarchists; there is a fundamental difference that makes a minarchist-anarchist union utterly impossible. This difference is the principle of force and power – the principle of government. It is our very core belief as anarchists that force and power are wrong; that any involuntary subjection is always comparable to the end of the world. We have a true passion for justice, while minarchists do not.
Allow me to rephrase this statement: What separates libertarian anarchists from libertarian minarchists is what also makes the former different from statist socialists: they have a fundamental belief in government as a means and end that we do not and cannot share. Minarchist libertarians may not agree with every policy assumed by government and they may even reject almost all that which government is about. The problem is that they support the fundamental principle of government, and on this issue, we cannot find common ground.
I have many times been attacked (verbally, at least) by anarchist and minarchist libertarians alike for my principled dismissal of minarchists as allies in our stand against government. However, I am convinced that they are both very mistaken in their views, even though their rhetoric at times is attractive. Yes, it certainly sounds wonderful if we could join forces with those who share most of our beliefs to repeal almost all government and then turn to fight each other when it truly matters – when we already have established a very limited minarchist government. But this argument completely misses the point. Government is not a technical issue of size; it is a matter of principle.
From a principled standpoint, it does not matter if government controls a fraction or all-but-a-fraction of society. In this sense, minarchist libertarians are not different from big-government statists (of whatever variety). Wanting to repeal policies and roll back government is a matter of taste, but it is not a matter of principle. Some want it smaller, others want it bigger – and yet others want it to stay the same. Neither of them is willing to discuss whether government should be – only size matters. On the contrary, government’s existence is treated as a given fact, perhaps even a necessity.
In this sense, minarchist libertarians are nothing but gutless wimps; they are statist socialists with a fetish for smaller government. While big-government statists at least tend to have the decency to argue for their principled stand (that government is “good”), minarchists hide behind the myth of functioning government to protect them from hard-to-handle arguments. Most of us have faced opponents pushing for beyond-any-doubt answers we cannot supply: who will take care of the individual born without parents or relatives and who is mentally disabled and does not have any friends, cannot move or think or eat or breathe without help – and lacks all means to support him- or herself? Who will ensure this person’s well-being in a “free” society?
The question, whether posed in this extreme way or not, usually has only one purpose: to make the opponent appear to be a cold bastard who should not be taken seriously. The anarchist, of course, cannot supply a short and convincing answer, whereas the minarchist would be better off to (and usually does) reach for the trump card hidden in his sleeve: “government will take care of this matter.” Government is the final arbiter, the last resort, and the final guarantee of goodness. As well as a champion of freedom and health and all that is good and necessary and wished-for, when push comes to shove.
The truth, of course, is that government is hardly a solution, in the case of the poor individual described above or any other case. Who would notify the “authorities” if this poor person has no one and not even himself? Truthfully, would he or she be better off in a government-run society, where people are necessarily subject to their network of people with political influence, or in a decentralized society with a strong civil society where any individual’s actions make a difference? The answer is quite obvious, but to most audiences it would require the kind of explanation that can never fit in TV-friendly one-liners.
The point is not that freedom is difficult to defend – it surely is not. The point is that minarchists tend to evade the tough questions; they always end up relying on government as a guarantee when they are pushed back by a skilled rhetorician. They are not principally opposed to government, and in this sense they are statists as much as any other. From a point of view of principle, statists are all the same. As a principled anarchist, I cannot stand shoulder to shoulder with a minarchist against government. In fact, I refuse – because I know that when push comes to shove, the minarchist is like any other statist. He will not hesitate to pull the trigger on anyone with a principled opposition to government.