Nov 27, 2018

Minarchists and Anarchists in Libertarian History

Minarchists and anarchists—i.e. champions of the night-watchman state and opponents of any state—aren’t as clearly distinguishable as one might think.

Libertarians frequently re-litigate the anarchism (i.e., no state) versus minarchism (i.e., a minimal state) debate, both sides convinced that the other represents a heretical deviation from libertarian orthodoxy. The question of whether we ought to have a government at all is not new to the modern libertarian movement. The issue was thoroughly treated in the pages of Benjamin Tucker’s periodical, Liberty, which advanced an individualist anarchism based on the claim that “aggression, invasion, [and] government, are interconvertible terms.” Anticipating the free market anarchism (or “anarcho-capitalism”) of Murray Rothbard, Tucker believed that the libertarian prohibition of invasion—what is today often referred to as the nonaggression principle—necessarily ruled out the state. Still, many libertarians who have endorsed a strictly voluntary society, one without sanctioned aggression or coercion of any kind, have nevertheless come down in favor of some kind of government. These libertarians take a position opposite that of Tucker and Rothbard, maintaining that conformity to the demands of the nonaggression principle does not rule out, but requires a single, sovereign power, that is, a state. Below, I shall consider some of the views and arguments of both anarchists and minarchists, whose philosophical debates continue within libertarian circles today.

Herbert, Tucker, and the Origins of Anarchist Libertarianism

In the late nineteenth century, Auberon Herbert, the father of the political philosophy called “voluntaryism,” argued that while there must be a government in a free society, it was only a “delegated body,” and, as such, could have no rights beyond or in addition to those of the individuals who created it. Herbert believed that individuals would pay taxes voluntarily in exchange for the services provided by the government, those of protection and justice. His stringent voluntaryist position, which would suffer no “use of force against the non-aggressor,” resists easy categorization, and led both his anarchist and minarchist detractors to dispute his notion of a government without some kind of compulsion. It is clear from his writings that Herbert would not have attempted to compel a resisting individual’s cooperation with his voluntary government. For Herbert, such a use of aggression to compel compliance would be to “sacrifice the sovereignty [of the individual] in order to secure it.” Consequently, two of Herbert’s frequent interlocutors, the anarchist Tucker and the limited government Individualist J.H. Levy, regarded his voluntaryism as a form of anarchism. Levy even declaimed that Herbert’s system was “[i]n reality … an anarchistic attack on Individualism” (emphasis in original). On Herbert’s death, Tucker remarked in Liberty that “[Herbert] was a true Anarchist in everything but name. How much better (and how much rarer) to be an Anarchist in everything but name than to be an Anarchist in name only!” In a debate with Levy, Herbert doubted that such a consensual system, which would allow individuals to opt out, would inevitably lead to a “split into several Governments.” As we shall see, this notion of multiple, competing “governments” within a single geographical area has continued to occupy an important place in libertarian theory and discourse. Herbert’s strict insistence on voluntary consent thus blurs the line between an ultra-minimal state and a stateless, cooperative system of law and order, between minarchism and anarchism.

Rand, Donisthorpe, and the Origins of Minarchist Libertarianism

In the twentieth century, Ayn Rand’s Objectivism quite similarly held that “government as such has no rights except the rights delegated to it by the citizens for a specific purpose.” Rand believed that government is necessary for creating “objectively defined” rules of appropriate conduct, and for their objective enforcement. She argued that government is merely an agent or servant of citizens who consent to its creation and has no legitimate moral authority to go beyond the specific functions of protecting the legitimate rights of individuals from violent interference. Without a lone, ultimate arbiter of justice, Rand held, civil society would disintegrate, unable to stop “the first criminal who came along” to drive it “into the chaos of gang warfare.” In her essay, “The Nature of Government,” Rand vehemently denied the practicability of competing defensive associations, of “competition in forcible restraint.” For Rand, this would be just another example of the kind of criminal gang warfare that government is uniquely designed to prevent. Shortly before her death, she argued that a government would be justified in preemptively treating private competitors as a threat, thus forbidding such competition “as a potential violation of individual rights.”

The Individualism of the English libertarian Wordsworth Donisthorpe built its theory of the state on a concern almost identical to Rand’s. Accepting the basic assertion of social contract theory—that the state originated in a collective effort, deliberate or not, to escape a violent state of nature (which Donisthorpe sees as “a state of absolute liberty”)—Donisthorpe wonders what, in a system of anarchy, would prevent the might-makes-right predation of the strong against the weak. In Individualism: A System of Politics, he writes, “A state of full liberty … is one in which the strong are free to rob the weak, and the weak are free to rob the strong. Clearly this is an unenviable state of things for the weak. The strong may call it liberty, but the weak call it anarchy. The two are identical.” For Donisthorpe, as for Rand, the state serves the interests of society by suppressing “the evils of liberty,” the two, society and the state, complementing one another. Donisthorpe even goes as far as equating society and the state, at least in their common historical role in bringing potentially dangerous, wayward individuals under the authority of the group. As a group, the minarchists worry that in anarchy, nothing stands outside of or above the brutal, ongoing war that they suppose characterizes the history of primitive stateless man. They are, therefore, students of Thomas Hobbes in the sense that they see the state as “an artificial man,” established on the basis of “mutual covenants,” “for the attaining of peace” and the conservation of citizens’ liberty and property.

The Anarchist-Minarchist Dialogue: Blurring the Lines

The anarchist branch of the libertarian lineage, represented by thinkers such as Benjamin Tucker, Murray Rothbard, and David Friedman, strongly disputes this account of the state on historical and philosophical grounds. They see the state as based unavoidably on invasive violence, antithetical to the principles of a free and civil society. Whereas society, for the anarchists, is defined by voluntary exchange and association for the benefit of all participants, the state is the organization of systematic violence and economic exploitation. The history of government, as anarchists see it, is one distinguished by essentially criminal behavior. In the classic statement of Herbert Spencer, “it is unquestionably true that Government is begotten of aggression and by aggression.” Believing that this kind of aggression against peaceful individuals is irreconcilable with the libertarian idea, anarchists like Rothbard maintained that in a free society, “defense services, like all other services, would be marketable and marketable only.” If protected monopolies harm consumers in all other areas, leading to high-cost, low-quality goods and services, then the beneficial effects of competition should be extended also to protection and justice. Murray Rothbard considered the merits of “the voluntary taxation method” of Auberon Herbert and others in Man, Economy, and State. “Would they,” he asks, “use force to compel people not to use a freely competing defense agency within the same geographic area?” If so, he reasoned, the voluntary taxationists would have, ipso facto, instituted a compulsory monopoly, founded on a grant of special privilege at odds with voluntaryist principles. The libertarian thinker Roy Childs, in his “Open Letter to Ayn Rand” attempting to convert Rand to free market anarchism, challenged the minarchist position with similar questions. Childs said that there were two alternatives for a monopolistic government such as Ayn Rand advocated: It could allow competing defense agencies—the private, free market provision of justice—or else it could “use force or the threat of it” to perpetuate itself and its monopoly position.

Murray Rothbard and Minarchism

In these argumentative moves, both Rothbard and Childs were following Benjamin Tucker, whose periodical Liberty had hosted some of the earliest debates between anarchists and limited government libertarians. Tucker invited the minarchists of his day to show a justification for the state’s “monopoly of defence,” and contended that a competing defensive association—unlike the monopolist state—would have every incentive “to keep itself trimmed down to the popular demand.” As for the strict voluntaryists who rejected the anarchist label—Herbert, for example—Tucker conditionally accepted their definition of the state and attempted an extrapolation of their logic. If their “state” would truly and completely abstain from aggressing against the individual, permitting her to establish her own “state” as a business enterprise, then the concerns of the anarchists would be allayed. In such a state of affairs, Tucker observed, “the multiplication of ‘States’ involves the abolition of the State.” As Tucker’s follower Francis D. Tandy likewise put it, “If you wish to call what is left ‘a State,’ our only disagreement will be on the use of the word.” Furthermore, while he insisted that under libertarianism’s categorical prohibition of invasion, all peaceful competition must be permitted, Tucker believed that a condition of “multitudinous rival political agencies” was unlikely, merely a “bugbear” used by the opponents of anarchism. For Tucker, then, the fact of “plumb-line anarchism” was not a strict matter of adherence to any predetermined organizational or institutional form, but instead turned on uncompromising acceptance of the fundamental principles of equal liberty. Even a society with a single protective agency could be a form of anarchism, at least in principle. Opposition to invasion, aggression, the initiation of force—whatever we choose to call it—was, for Tucker, the conditio sine qua non of the libertarian anarchist position.

We cannot, therefore, treat the existence of competition among protective agencies as a necessary condition of an anarchist social system. To make anarchism conditional on such competition would disqualify many (if not most) mainline anarchists, their ideas either excluding or never so much as considering the notion of competing defensive associations. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, for example, hoped that associations of free people would “dissolve, submerge, and cause to disappear the political or governmental system,” economic relationships replacing authoritarian relationships. A great student of Proudhon, Tucker analogously explained that the goal was “less and less” government invasion, “more and more” proper protection. In point of fact, historically the theory of competing defense firms has found relatively few libertarian or anarchist expositors, the dominant idea being simply the projection of a governing apparatus fundamentally unlike the state as we now know it—that is, one that would be voluntary in character, non-hierarchical in structure, and limited to very narrowly enumerated functions. At once we see that, even as a matter of pure theory, the supposed dividing line between the champions of the night-watchman state and those of the stateless society is not as hard and fast as might have been supposed. To further confuse matters, the eminent philosopher Robert Nozick famously predicted that the competitive struggle between protective agencies would lead ineluctably to the emergence of a single, dominant agency, which would then act as the sovereign power in that geographical area. While Nozick’s position is a philosophical defense of a minimal, “night-watchman” state, it is not entirely clear that it is incompatible with the anarchist values set forth by Tucker and Rothbard.

The Importance of the Anarchist-Minarchist Tension

As a practical matter, given our current predicament, we might argue that the distinction between these variants of libertarianism—anarchism and minarchism—hardly matters. Indeed, it may never have mattered very much in the first place, for as we have seen, the differences between the proposed systems of anarchists and of minarchists often boil down to quibbling about words and definitions rather than real, substantive disagreements on principle. Furthermore, libertarians of both kinds arguably have much more in common with each other than we have with the rest of the anarchist bracket, which has consistently reaffirmed its hostility toward market economies and private property—even the kinds of property protections advanced by mutualist and individualist anarchists such as Proudhon and Benjamin Tucker. Just as today’s collectivist and communist anarchists deny that libertarians (whom they often call “right-libertarians” or “propertarians”) are true libertarians, so too did Benjamin Tucker frequently deny that anarcho-communists were true anarchists; he consistently expressed his affinity with individualists, liberals, and champions of laissez faire generally rather than the communists in the anarchist movement (he writes, “[P]rivate property does not imply a State, while Communism does”). In these early exchanges, we can perhaps see the writing on the wall, the reasons for the split that divides libertarians and anarchists to this day into two, often diametrically opposed movements, one more often associated with the political left, one more often associated (rightly or wrongly) with the right. Libertarians should cultivate an understanding of the anarchism-minarchism debates, revisiting them often as a way to refine our ideas about what the state ought to do—if anything. With this carefully honed understanding, we will be better able to communicate our unique ideas about the proper limits on the use of force in society.


Originally Published on July 7, 2015.


Further Reading

Black-Market Activism: Agorism and Samuel Edward Konkin III, written by David S. D’Amato