April 13, 2015

Beyond the Ancap/Minarchy Debate

By In Blogs, C.Jay Engel

I’m usually quite hesitant to comment on this topic, as it is seemingly controversial amongst various readers of this site (how cowardly of me!).  But within the libertarian world, it often comes up.  We must be prepared to give an answer.  This post will primarily be interesting for those already familiar with libertarianism

The biggest problem, I think, in addressing the ancap/minarchy debate is the fact that A) people get emotional and don’t listen to the actual argumentation being set forth and B) refuse to precisely set down operating definitions.  Personally, I think the whole debate is overdone and overemphasized. For example, Murray Rothbard, the intellectual who coined the term “anarcho-capitalist,” was convinced that government could be funded and provided for in a way that was consistent with the summation of his political thought; namely, the non-aggression principle.  Mises, perhaps the most brilliant sociologists in modern history, was not convinced that government could be funded and provided for in that way.

Mises, in one of his statements against anarchism, wrote the following [when he says Liberalism, he is referring to “Classical Liberalism,” which was the predecessor liberty-movement before the more purist libertarianism of the 20th century. He is definitely NOT referring to modern Progressivist liberalism.]:

Liberalism is not anarchism, nor has it anything whatsoever to do with anarchism. The liberal understands quite clearly that without resort to compulsion, the existence of society would be endangered and that behind the rules of conduct whose observance is necessary to assure peaceful human cooperation must stand the threat of force if the whole edifice of society is not to be continually at the mercy of any one of its members. One must be in a position to compel the person who will not respect the lives, health, personal freedom, or private property of others to acquiesce in the rules of life in society. This is the function that the liberal doctrine assigns to the state: the protection of property, liberty, and peace.

And yet Rothbard, the first anarcho-capitalist, wisely pointed out:

For it should never be forgotten that a libertarian society does not mean the total absence of coercion but only the absence of coercion against noncriminals. Those who invade the rights of others by violence deserve their proper check and punishment by the force of law.

Something is clearly amiss.

Let’s talk definition.

The nature of a definition is the meaning that sits behind the word.  Without the meaning, the word is useless. It is the meaning of the word that carries the weight.  Thus, we ought not get caught up on words. Mises often talked about the follies of history’s anarchists.  Essentially, they were socialists who desired disorder and destruction of the present state of things, who assumed that the private ownership of goods was evil, who taught that man could be perfected once the capitalist system was overcome.  The anarchists, in short, were chaotic leftists, who had a profound disdain for private property and the “natural elites,” that is, those who ran businesses and owned property.  There was so very much wrong with them.  In fact, as Rothbard, in his early years, pointed out,

we find that none of the proclaimed anarchist groups correspond to the libertarian position, that even the best of them have unrealistic and socialistic elements in their doctrines. Furthermore, we find that all of the current anarchists are irrational collectivists, and therefore at opposite poles from our position. We must therefore conclude that we are not anarchists, and that those who call us anarchists are not on firm etymological ground, and are being completely unhistorical.

Anarchism is neither economically practical nor is it ethically praiseworthy.

Why, then, do so many modern libertarians -most notably of the Rothbardian strain- consider themselves as “anarcho-capitalists?”  Well, interestingly, Rothbard had set out to articulate the fact that he saw a distinction between the State as (perhaps echoing Augustine) “the organization of robbery systematized and writ large” and government, which was the function in society of rendering justice to criminals (see here for more on this distinction).  In other words, at a very basic level, the state itself seemed to stand in contradiction with the professed aims of government!  Rothbard’s goal was to come up with a phrase to express the fact that he was both against the state, but also for private property, which necessitates protection of that property and punishment against those who aggress against that property (criminals).  His chosen phrase was “anarcho-capitalism” (or “ancap” for short). Against the state, but for private property/government services.

In due time, people simply began to take the short route and just say “anarchist.”  What they meant, however, was not the leftism that Mises so valiantly opposed, but their opposition to the monopoly institution of legalized crime.

In other words, they use anarchism in a way that most people, upon hearing the word, would never guess its meaning. In other words, the word is both unhelpful and misleading.  Two key points come from this: 1) if you consider yourself an ancap, I suggest not being dogmatic about the phrase. Try using “Propertarian.” 2) if you consider yourself a libertarian but don’t go as far as Rothbard did, don’t assume that the ancaps you are talking with are using “anarchism” in its historical use of the term.  They are probably just expressing their “anti-state” sentiments.

Now then, what is “ideal?” Should the libertarian be for anarcho-capitalism (stateless society, with government services) or minarchy (a society with a minimal state, restricted only to the enforcement of property rights)?  Let me first say this: the minarchist libertarian, such as Ron Paul and Ludwig von Mises, has as much right to the term “libertarian” as the anarcho-capitalist such as Murray Rothbard and Hans-Hermann Hoppe.  The reason I say this, besides their historical affinity (this debate is deeply an “insider baseball” issue), is because I think the debate is actually one of definitional technicality.

Stephen Kinsella, who is perhaps more aware of this definitional technicality than many others in both camps, once stated:

So when you talk about government, the question is not how we classify it or what the best words are for state, government, etc., semantically: but rather: the question is: does the “government” that “minarchists” favor engage in institutionalized aggression, or not? If not, it’s not a state, and it’s not unlibertarian. If it does, it’s merely a type of state.

Now the [anarcho-capitalists] believe you can have private institutions provide law, justice, defense, without necessarily engaging in systematic and institutionalized aggression–that is, without being a state. Whether you want to call such institutions “government” or not seems to me to be purely semantic, [especially] if we grant there is a distinction between state and government. The remaining question is simply what type of government the “minarchists” favor: do they favor a government that has the authority to commit institutionalized aggression, or not? If they do, then they are pro-state, since such a government is a state. If they do not, they are [anarcho-capitalists], it seems to me, since private, non-state, non-aggressive institutions of law, justice, and defense is exactly what we [anarcho-capitalists] favor.

You see, the debate is not about government vs. no government.  The debate is more nuanced than that. The question is actually broken up into two parts, based on the two things that actually define the essence of the state. First, is it better (more morally consistent) for the institutions of government to be funded via voluntary fees and/or service charges, or via compulsory taxation? This isn’t about what is “practical.” Political theory –ethics–  is not built on utilitarian grounds.  It’s a simple theoretical question.  Yes, lower taxes are better, yes we ought to pay our taxes. Those are different discussions. What we are asking is whether governments (human beings) should, ideally, take the money needed to operate by compulsion or not.  Second, does the government have the right to declare itself the only institution of its kind that is allowed in society?  That is, does the government have the right to sue competitors and drive them, by aggression, out of business?  Or are other governing institutions allowed to compete and service their clients?  Ancaps would say, ideally, governments should take voluntary payments and also that they do not have the right to outlaw competitors. Minarchists disagree.

That’s the difference, precisely because those are the two things which set the State apart from every other (legal) organization.

I’ll end with some previous comments of mine on the use of the term “anarchism.”  I do not like it one bit, and wish that Rothbard had never adopted it; it was a well-intentioned strategic mistake. In fact, at one time (as implied above), he completely rejected it. I think that anarcho-capitalists should adopt Hans Hoppe’s phrase: “Propertarian.”  But again, we mustn’t assume that ancaps desire zero government and neither should we assume that minarchists aren’t true libertarians. This of course doesn’t mean that there aren’t anarchists throughout the libertarian world that should be avoided– for there certainly are! And this doesn’t mean that there aren’t compromising minarchists who have fled from principled Misesian minarchism– for there certainly are!

Here are my previous comments on “anarchism:”

This of course brings up a third troublesome word: anarchism.  Anarchism has been used as a synonym for chaos and disorder. We can dismiss this definition immediately.  Firstly because this is a poorly applied etymological usage and secondly because few self-described anarchists are pushing for chaos. In fact, he may even point out that in our age of massive States around the world, chaos and disorder are at dangerous and deadly (literally) levels.  Another use of the term is that it advocates for a society without laws.  Again, this fails the etymology test and also the empirical test. Anarchists of the past either want strict property rights and zero State, or else they desire, as the syndicalists do, zero property rights and community governance.  Whether or not these options are viable or even just is besides the point that some sort of law is advocated.  And therefore anarchism cannot refer to a lawless society.

Now then, what does the word mean?  Etymologically, it means “without rulers.”  In the libertarian movement, especially in the Rothbardian tradition, it means “without the State.”  The trouble here is obvious. For not all who are rulers are necessarily part of the State.  If a ruler is one who has the legal claim to setting the “rules” of a given jurisdiction, then logically the property owner is a ruler over all that he owns.  And further, if the ideal libertarian society can be described as a “Propertarian” society, that is, a society made up only of privately-owned property as opposed to “public” property, then it is essentially ruled by proper owners creating their rules and voluntary interacting with each other.  The number of rulers in this society is not zero, in fact, it is hundreds or thousands or however big the society is! Ironically then, it is democracy and every other State structure which limits the number of rulers.

Thus, it is my claim that anarchism is simply a poor word to describe the libertarian.  Perhaps the anti-statist wants to refer to himself as an anarchist. But if he believes in private property, the word itself is misleading.  And harmful. For those who have no clue what the libertarian anarchists are talking about, the word sounds immensely frightening.  It is for this reason that I do not refer to myself as an anarchist, preferring the term libertarian or propertarian.

Murray Rothbard was aware of these problems and at one time completely rejected the use of the term.  He should have kept up this opposition.

It takes nuance, care, and discernment in weeding through the libertarian debates.

As for me, I never refer to myself as an anarchist. I am a Propertarian, when talking strict theory; but also, since I think that the State will always be with us, for God seems to have ordained its presence throughout history (with some fantastic and blessed exceptions), I will always advocate for it to do less and less, for it to slash taxes more and more, and for people to start relying on their families and their communities (and private corporations, which “serve” consumers more than bureaucracies every could) rather than the power-hungry politicians.

Written by C.Jay Engel

Editor and creator of The Reformed Libertarian. Living in Northern California with his wife, he writes on everything from politics to theology and from culture to economic theory. You can send an email to reformedlibertarian@gmail.com
  • Patrick T. McWilliams

    Thanks!