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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Libertarian Dilemma: Anarchy or Minarchy?

So I have a dilemma. We're going to take a dive into some pretty heavy libertarian political theory here, but I'm going to break it down into the most simple terms I can. Before posing the question, let me acknowledge that I am embarrassingly unfamiliar with a lot of the academic libertarian literature on this and that perhaps Rothbard has solved my problem already quite directly and convincingly. If this is the case, please summarize the solution for me in the comment thread below or link to a relatively accessible (as in not a million pages long) web page whose contents address and solve my dilemma.

Essentially, I am faced with the alternatives of minarchy and anarchy, but I find that each alternative has its own unique and seemingly insoluble problem. To briefly define my terms: libertarians want to maximize human liberty, but disagree as to what form of society will accomplish this best. Anarchy would be a society with no government at all, while minarchy would be a society with a very "minimal government."

As I wrote above, I think that both alternatives have a critical problem and I haven't yet come up with a satisfying solution for either. If I were pressed for which I believe is right in the end however, I would have to say minarchy. True freedom requires rule of law, which means a consistent set of laws administered by an impartial civil body politic. Otherwise, as Ayn Rand-- a minarchist (who really detested anarchists)-- argued, a man might go breaking into the houses of anyone who he suspects might have stolen his property, and then take their dirty look as guilt and summarily execute his "justice" upon them for their "crime."

What would need to stand in place of this kind of "justice?" A clear and consistent set of laws, clearly defining illicit behavior, and an impartial justice system for sorting out who is guilty of what and how they should be sentenced- which looks an awful lot like a government to me. What would a "minimal government" look like? It would be one that carries out only a single function-- and that function is to ban, prevent, and oppose aggression between human beings.

Aggression will be defined here as the initiation of the use of force against another human being. In other words, if you were to break into my house with a gun and threaten my family, you would have aggressed. If however, I were to defend myself from you in this situation, I would not be guilty of aggression. I would be using violent force, but only to respond to someone who has initiated its use. As the old schoolyard phrase goes, the aggressor is the one who "throws the first punch."

So a strictly minarchist state would only exist to act-- as many libertarians call it-- as a night watchman. It does not exist to directly make human beings happier, healthier, or more productive (though a society free from aggression is a prerequisite for those things). Its sole purpose is to ban acts of aggression and work to protect people from aggressors. A local police force, for instance, keeps you safe from the aggression of murders, muggings, and theft. A court system serves as a support function for that role by determining who is in fact guilty of aggression and to what degree. A military protects you from foreign aggression. Finally, a representative body of some kind organizes and directs the first three. These are the basic elements of a strictly minarchist state.

But we run into the critical problem with minarchy when something strange happens. Let's say you break into my house and steal my television. At the moment that you are in my house, I have no immediate recourse to the civil body politic for my protection. At that moment, for my bare survival, I may have to respond to your aggression with force if I am threatened by you. But after you've left with my television, I can't very well go around like Ayn Rand's vigilante, searching for you and trying to get back my television. I need to go to the state to advocate for me, right?

Otherwise, society would break down into the vigilante anarchy that Rand opposed. Our minarchist state should ostensibly be able to stop me from embarking on such an endeavor in order to prevent the wrong person from being apprehended and punished, or even to prevent the thief from coming to a violent end that doesn't fit the gravity of his crime. And in order to actually be able to enforce its prerogative, the state has to be able to use force to stop me. And here's where the problem comes in.

If I were to find and apprehend the thief and get my television back, I wouldn't strictly be aggressing myself. Would I? You were the one who stole my TV. I'm just getting it back. So if the state were to stop me from attempting to get my TV back, an act which is not aggressive, but a response to an aggressor, then we are saying that the state can aggress. It would be using force against someone who was not an aggressor. That's the problem. If the goal is to strictly prevent aggression, we seem unable to do so with a minarchist state unless that state has a coercive monopoly on its role as arbiter between aggressors and their victims, a monopoly that it can defend by aggressive force.

My problem with anarchy, you've already read in my ramblings above. As I wrote earlier: "True freedom requires rule of law, which means a consistent set of laws administered by an impartial civil body politic." Without this, it seems impossible to me that there could be any real, meaningful freedom. Yet in order to have one that actually serves its role without disintegrating into anarchy one vigilante at a time, we need to be okay with an aggressive, coercive monopoly state-- and that doesn't sit well with me either.

Good thing this is only theory and right now I'd simply be happy with abolishing the Federal Reserve, repealing the income tax, and curbing the size, role, and influence of Washington's welfare, warfare, and regulatory states. Some of you may write that I'm simply "over-thinking" things. Perhaps. Rest assured that it's the soaring national debt and growing militarization of our society into a police state-- not political theory-- that keeps me awake at night. I'd appreciate some responses and discussion regardless.