The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism

Minimal State

Libertarianism, and the classical liberalism from which it sprang, supports a strictly limited state, if indeed its adherents recognize the legitimacy of the state at all. The minimal state is a notion found within a particular variant of the limited-government variety of libertarianism. In the conception offered here, it was introduced by Robert Nozick, whose Anarchy, State, and Utopia is the most influential work supporting libertarianism by an American philosopher. Although Nozick criticized individualist anarchism, he did hold that the minimal state was the form of government that was morally justifiable.

Nozick’s starting point is a society in which no government exists. In this situation, he maintained, people largely, although not entirely, respect the rights of others. Among these rights are self-ownership and the right to acquire property. In addition, individuals may use force against those who violate one’s rights. This starting point is the same as that of most libertarian anarchists, such as Murray Rothbard. However, what Nozick attempted to show was that, from this initial position, persons would find it to their advantage to take a series of steps that would eventuate in a state—steps that would violate no rights. If Nozick’s argument is successful, then he would have shown that the libertarian anarchist view embraced by Rothbard and others undermines itself. Nozick’s aims were not limited to the refutation of anarchism. Because individuals in his view do possess the rights he allots them at the start, he intends his argument as a direct justification of the state.

In what sense is the minimal state a state? Nozick understood the state as possessing two main attributes: It must have a monopoly, or close to a monopoly, of legitimate force in a territory, and it must provide protective services for everyone in that territory. It cannot limit its protective services to paying customers, as a private protection agency would do. Nozick argued that the state-like entity that would inevitably result from his starting point met these requirements and thus qualified as a state.

Nozick’s argument takes the following form. He begins by assuming that most individuals would join protection agencies to enforce their rights. In choosing an agency, persons would seek an agency that would be expected to win in disputes with other agencies or persons if these disputes could not be peacefully resolved. In brief, persons would seek the most powerful agency available to them. If an agency were somewhat stronger than any of its rivals, customers would shift their patronage to it. Such shifts would make it even more powerful. This movement, in turn, would elicit further shifts of business to it. The culmination of this process would be that most people in society would be protected by a single protection agency.

The market for protective services, Nozick contended, differs in a crucial respect from most other goods and services that the market provides. Like other supporters of a free-market economy, Nozick held that there is no general tendency toward monopoly in the market. Large firms do not always drive out their smaller rivals: The optimal size of a firm depends on particular circumstances. In the market for protection, however, the value of a firm to consumers depends on whether it is stronger than its rivals. In this circumstance, competition among many firms is unstable.

If Nozick’s argument is correct, a dominant protection agency would arise from his starting point. This agency is not a state: It provides protection only to those who pay for its services. In the most original part of his argument, Nozick tried to show that the dominant agency would be able to transform itself into a state through morally legitimate means.

Nozick’s argument depends on his views about how individuals may respond to someone who violates rights. Like nearly all libertarians, Nozick maintains that persons are entitled to compensation from rights violators. Thus, for example, if someone steals one’s car, one is entitled to the return of the item or its monetary value from the thief. Nozick understands compensation to include payment for expenses of capture and trial of the thief and also payment for any personal losses, including psychological distress occasioned by the theft.

In certain cases, however, this sort of compensation is not sufficient. If people know that they face certain or likely physical harm, they will suffer anxiety. However, although it might be the case that someone who is assaulted can receive compensation for this anxiety after his assailant is convicted, others in the anxiety-provoking situation who are not assaulted will receive no compensation. To deal with this circumstance, Nozick suggests that those who induce this sort of anxiety can be prohibited from engaging in their criminal activities. Here prohibition is being used in a technical sense: Nozick means that these people may be subjected to additional penalties beyond compensation to their victims. These penalties will, if successful, deter the anxiety-provoking activities.

Protection agencies can engage in anxiety-provoking activities by subjecting people to risky decision procedures. For example, if a protection agency imposes the death penalty on murderers and uses methods of trial that clients of other agencies deem unreliable, people may become anxious about the possibility of being wrongly found guilty of murder and executed. To cope with this anxiety, a protection agency may attempt to prohibit other agencies or independents operating without an agency from imposing risky decision procedures on its clients.

Any protection agency or independent may attempt to prohibit others from imposing risky procedures, but not all such attempts will be successful. Each agency considers its own procedures reliable, and it has no obligation to accept the opinion of others who disagree. It may forcibly resist such prohibitions. The upshot of such conflicts, Nozick thinks, is that the dominant agency will get its way. It will successfully prohibit others from imposing risky decision procedures on its clients, and other agencies will not be able to resist the dominant agency’s use of its procedures on their clients.

If the dominant agency acts in this way, it comes close to meeting Nozick’s first requirement for a state. The agency by its prohibitions can prevent any procedures against its clients that it does not recognize as legitimate. The dominant agency in effect has final authority over the application of legitimate force. Nozick terms a dominant agency that acts in this way an ultraminimal state. It does not prohibit other agencies from applying risky procedures to their own clients, but no state, Nozick thinks, may rightly do so.

The ultraminimal state does not meet Nozick’s second requirement for a state. It provides protective services only to its clients, not to independents living in its territory. However, this condition, Nozick claims, is unstable, such that the dominant agency would find itself morally required to immediately transform itself into a minimal state that offers protective services to everyone in its territory.

Of course someone who uses a decision procedure that others consider risky has not acted in a morally wrong way. Nozick is prepared to concede that there are legitimate differences of opinion about such procedures. However, if someone is prohibited from using a procedure he considers acceptable, he is disadvantaged. His ability to defend his rights has been impeded. The dominant agency, Nozick holds, must therefore compensate those independents who are disadvantaged by its prohibition of risky procedures. This compensation may take the form of offering low-cost protection services to the disadvantaged independents. No one is required to buy these services, so Nozick’s proposal is not a form of taxation. The independents will find it to their advantage to purchase the protection services, however, because otherwise they will find it difficult to protect their rights. In addition, the dominant agency may be required to provide protective services without fee to independents unable to pay. Thus, the dominant agency meets the second of Nozick’s requirements for a state: The ultraminimal state has become a minimal state.

Nozick’s argument has received extensive criticism, both from libertarian anarchists and others. Rothbard questioned whether a dominant agency would in fact emerge from Nozick’s initial position. Would it not be more likely that agencies would reach agreements on resolving disputes rather than fight over them? If so, there is no tendency toward a monopoly protection agency, at least for the reasons Nozick suggests. Nozick takes agencies involved in such an agreement to constitute a single agency, but Rothbard thinks this view is implausible.

Eric Mack contends that an agency could circumvent the dominant agency’s prohibition of risky decision procedures by using only procedures the dominant agency deemed acceptable. By carefully crafting services to its clients, an indefinite number of competitive agencies can be expected to persist in a free-market society.

What if anarchists viewed the emergence of a dominant agency as undesirable? Nozick argues that they would be unable to block its emergence; but, David Miller contends, it does not follow that they would regard the outcome as acceptable. If so, Nozick has not met his own requirement that each step of his procedure is an improvement for those who take it. One may safely anticipate that controversy over Nozick’s argument will continue.


Further Readings

Barnett, Randy. “Wither Anarchy? Has Robert Nozick Justified the State?” Journal of Libertarian Studies 1 no. 1 (1977): 15–21.

Childs, Roy A. “The Invisible Hand Strikes Back.” Journal of Libertarian Studies 1 no. 1 (1977): 23–33.

Mack, Eric. “Nozick’s Anarchism.” Nomos XIX: Anarchism. J. R. Pennock and J. W. Chapman, eds. New York: New York University Press, 1978.

Miller, David. “The Justification of Political Authority.” Robert Nozick. David Schmidtz, ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Nozick, Robert. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. New York: Basic Books, 1974.

Rothbard, Murray N. The Ethics of Liberty. New York: New York University Press, 1998.

Sanders, John T. “The Free Market Model versus Government; A Reply to Nozick.” Journal of Libertarian Studies 1 no. 1 (1977): 35–44.

Steiner, Hillel. “Can a Social Contract Be Signed by an Invisible Hand?” Democracy, Consensus, and Social Contract. P. Birnbaum, J. Lively, and G. Parry, eds. London: Sage, 1978.

Originally published .