Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Come thy minarchists...

I've been reading The Libertarian Reader by David Boaz, the Executive Vice President of the US Cato Institute. This is a series of selected essays or book extracts from authors the editor views as 'libertarian'.

I've always found the 'libertarian'/'liberal' thing confusing in the US since 'liberal' in the US can mean statist, and thus more akin to the UK Labour party than the UK Liberal Democrat party. The Cato Institute is, however, minarchist which comes from a similar tradition to UK liberalism but is really quite different from the UK liberal beliefs outlined in Young, Free and Liberal [now available for free to download here].

From reading an essay by Murray Rothbard (whose regarded as a radical libertarian by David Boaz and an anarcho-capitalist by wikipedia), I'm coming to the conclusion that the difference could lie in the way that minarchists regard the state. They regard it as uniquely oppressive because 'only the government obtains its income by coercion and violence... every othern person or group receives its income by voluntary payment... apart from criminal outlaws, only the government can use its funds to commit violence against its own or any other subjects'. The problem is that although this might be the case in practice or at the moment, if 'all goods and services, including law and justice [were] provided without coercive government' then other groups would soon fill the gap in provision. Yet private monopolies could be as much a danger to individual freedom as the government and unlike government are not accountable to everyone in theory, never mind in practice. This is the nightmare of the Blade Runner-esque dystopia. If you are going to argue that any welfare provision makes people unfree then what is the difference between that and a company town like Saltaire. Surely, a worker is just as unfree being given housing, education, etc. by their employer as by the state?

The only person who is theoretically more free is Sir Titus Salt who, in theory, was free to build or not build Saltaire but who is compelled to contribute to welfare. I say, in theory, because workers are less productive in the absence of healthcare, education, decent housing, etc. So factory owners who didn't build places like Saltaire and chose not to be philanthropic in the absence of a welfare state were just free-riding. During a recession, various wealthy and philanthropic people would voluntarily try to help the disadvantaged. After the recession, non-philanthropic businessmen would reemploy those people. The health, welfare and ability to work of these workers was at least in part a result of other people's charity during their difficulty. Thus, the 'freedom' to choose not to be charitable in the absence of basic welfare is actually just an example of blatant free-riding on other people's generosity and kindness. It's like freedom to pollute - all very well in theory but actually it's not a 'freedom' because someone somewhere has their freedom of action reduced by your smog. For free-riding problems, you don't need a minarchist state, you need a light touch arbitrator to ensure people play fair. How you organise that light touch arbitrator to avoid it becoming a behemoth is, of course, a different question.

The objection to state compulsion over tax is pretty weak too. If the minarchist state is going to force Titus Salt to pay taxes to provide a police force, then there can be no sensible objection (or I haven't thought of one yet) to the idea of further compulsion to pay for or subsidise services such as education or a basic welfare state. The Wikipedia article on minarchism points out that:

Some believe that minarchism is inconsistent with libertarian belief and is a contradictory philosophy. Libertarianism, by definition, opposes the initiation of force or fraud against person or property. In order for a state to fund itself, it would have to tax people, which requires coercion and thus an initiation of force. Some libertarians argue that anarcho-capitalism is the only logically consistent form of libertarian belief. But supporters of minarchism counter that the government could survive on private donations and the creation trust funds without any form of taxation whatsoever.

And the latter, of course, wouldn't work. Why pay for the state to pay people to administer your security badly when you can hire a couple of thugs to stand out front? So we're left with anarcho-capitalism... remove the state to leave a huge power void just waiting to be filled with some other pig... which chills an Actonian liberal to the bone. Anarcho-capitalism is much like communism... nice idea in theory, shame about the application.

7 Comments:

  • At 12:14 pm , Anonymous minarchist said...

    I'm not quite sure if you have understood that minarchism and anarcho-capitalism are two mutually exclusive streams in the libertarian movement. You can't be a minarchist and anarcho-capitalist at the same time.

    A minarchist wants to retain a minimal state, or a night-watchman state, as it is also known. An anarcho-capitalist wants to abolish state altogether. Therefore what Murray Rothbard says doesn't represent the thoughts of minarchists. In his book Anarchy, State and Utopia Robert Nozick shows how a minimal state can rise from the anarchy without coercion.

    According to Nozick "a minimal state, limited to the narrow functions of protection against force, theft, fraud, enforcement of contracts, and so on, is justified."

    I think that you'll also find the best minarchist argument against redistribution from this book, from pages 160-164, "How Liberty Upsets Patterns" (The Wilt Chamberlain example.)

    "Libertarian Reader" is a great anthology, but contains also thoughts of anarcho-capitalists and objectivists, so you must understand, that everything that is written there doesn't represent the main stream of libertarian thought.

    If you are interested to read more, I'd like to recommend "Libertarianism - A Primer", also from David Boaz and "Classical Liberalism - The Unvanquished Ideal" from David Conway for starters, and "Anarchy, State and Utopia" from Robert Nozick and "Persons, Rights and the Moral Community" for the more advanced readers.

     
  • At 12:35 pm , Blogger Femme de Resistance said...

    Thanks.

    The blog is to some extent 'thinking out loud' when I'm not fully convinced that I understand something, so was hoping for some clarification/further reading, etc. :D

     
  • At 2:53 pm , Blogger Joe Otten said...

    Libertarianism is explained here as something to do with poor potty training.

     
  • At 8:56 pm , Anonymous BarryStocker said...

    The Libertarian Reader referred to is in fact to a large extent comprised of authors who are not clearly libertarian. Though J.S. Mill is sometimes mentioned by capitalist liberals he is disliked by those who have studied him closely, e.g. Mises. Similar remarks might apply to Locke, Smith,and Tocqueville. They favoured private property and markets, they never advocated anarchism or the minimum state. Most recent scholarship on Smith (e.g. Samuel Fleischacker) has read him in a rather social democratic way. Even Hayek is not clearly libertarian. At least some of the time he supported state social policy and public services on the basis of piece meal interventions modelled on the tradition of common law judgements. The grabbing of any thinker who can be called liberal and classical by mininmum state conservatives with complete mdisregard to the many aspects of that thinker which suggest a positive role for the state is a typical problem, which can be found in all the literature mentioned. One Classical Liberal who clearly advocated a version of the night watchman state, Wilhelm Vobn Humboldt is rather strangely hardly ever mentioned by these people. maybe because his career as a Prussian minister contadicts the more libertarian parts of his work. The most intellectually coherent of the recent figures is Robert Nozick, though Nozick abandoned libertarianism later in life. The rest read the history of liberalism is a ridiculously slanted way. Two other imprtnat points. There is an important stream of left-libertarianism, currently represented by Michael Otsuka. Capitalist libertarianism in American is often (not always) connected with Paleo Conservatism, nostalgia for the Confederacy and hatred of Abraham Lincoln. This can be confirmed by going to Mises.org and studying downloads from Muray Rothbard and self-style'Paleo-Conservative' Paul Gottfried. Gottfried is certainly an honest thinker, who for example notes that Locke was never a cpaitalist libertarian but was rather an ancestor of progressive liberalism. In this context, it might also be noted that the extreme right in France often has a positive view of the socialist Anarchist Proudhon.

     
  • At 9:45 pm , Anonymous phil said...

    The problem is that although this might be the case in practice or at the moment, if 'all goods and services, including law and justice [were] provided without coercive government' then other groups would soon fill the gap in provision. Yet private monopolies could be as much a danger to individual freedom as the government and unlike government are not accountable to everyone in theory, never mind in practice.

    This is pretty much Nozick's argument for minarchy: that having no state at all would lead to private bodies which were just as coercive as a minimal state. (And in fact, even if you had them, they would end up segmenting themselves geographically into what were all intents and purposes states.)

     
  • At 7:05 am , Blogger Femme de Resistance said...

    It's become apparently that The Libertarian Reader is a confusing bunch of essays and extracts that don't really hold together as a description of libertarian thought.

    I guess the argument I was making was that if libertarianism contained both minarchism and anarcho-capitalism as threads then only anarcho-capitalism seemed to be intellectually coherent.

    I didn't see why anyone who could afford to contribute to a state would wish to do so voluntarily when it would be more efficient to hire their own help directly or form informal collective groups to provide the service. Needless to say, this isn't a state.

    If you tried to introduce compulsion to pay for a basic state (e.g. police, law, etc.) then the argument against compulsion for other things like public services is gone.

    I guess I'm going to have to read Nozick to understand how he went about trying to deal with this problem. Although I'm suspecting he was using government not as the 'nation-state' but as smaller entities.

     
  • At 12:19 pm , Anonymous minarchist said...

    joe otten: "Libertarianism is explained here as something to do with poor potty training."

    I had thought that any sensible person would have understood, that that kind of arguments aren't worth replying to. They tell more about the maturity of the writer than about libertarians.

    BarryStocker: "The Libertarian Reader referred to is in fact to a large extent comprised of authors who are not clearly libertarian."

    True, but remember, that libertarianism is based on classical liberalism, and though not all classical liberal authors can be classified as libertarians, libertarianism is still partly based on some parts of their work.

    Besides, this anthology is mostly meant for the (lazy) libertarians (kind of a Readers Digest version of the classical texts which are somehow meaningful for libertarianism), I very much doubt that it's main purpose is to introduce libertarianism for the outsiders.

    As for Hayek, the book is made in the United States, and there "libertarian" is the closest label that can be applied on his thought, as "liberal" means something like a "socialist" in Europe. In "Why I Am Not a Conservative" he rejects the label "libertarian", but only as he doesn't like the sound of it. In the same text he identifies himself with the American libertarians by saying: "In the United States, where it has become almost impossible to use "liberal" in the sense in which I have used it, the term "libertarian" has been used instead. It may be the answer; but for my part I find it singularly unattractive. For my taste it carries too much the flavor of a manufactured term and of a substitute."

    "One Classical Liberal who clearly advocated a version of the night watchman state, Wilhelm Vobn Humboldt is rather strangely hardly ever mentioned by these people. maybe because his career as a Prussian minister contadicts the more libertarian parts of his work."

    "The Limits of State Action" of von Humboldt is on my bookshelf, but I suppose it's relatively unknown for the wider public (and even for the libertarians), except for the references by Mill. The reason I can't even guess. I would also mention Bastiat and Kant, though the political thoughts of Kant aren't that well known. However, in his essay "On The Relationship Of Theory To Practice In Political Right" it appeared that he thought that the considerable inequalities in wealth, created by inheritance, were quite acceptable, as long as privileges connected to the rank in society (for instance an office) can't be handed down for the descendants.

    "though Nozick abandoned libertarianism later in life."

    That's clearly a misunderstanding. In probably the last interview with Robert Nozick he answers to that claim: "...I never stopped self-applying (the word "Libertarian"). What I was really saying in The Examined Life was that I was no longer as hardcore a libertarian as I had been before. But the rumors of my deviation (or apostasy!) from libertarianism were much exaggerated."

    "Capitalist libertarianism in American is often (not always) connected with Paleo Conservatism, nostalgia for the Confederacy and hatred of Abraham Lincoln. This can be confirmed by going to Mises.org and studying downloads from Muray Rothbard and self-style 'Paleo-Conservative' Paul Gottfried."

    The paleo-libertarians / anarcho-capitalists / Rothbardians of Mises.org represent clearly a small (though noisy) minority in the Libertarian thought. I think that a more fitting term for them than "libertarian" would actually be "anarcho-conservative". Drawing conclusion about Libertarianism on the basis of what Mises.org says is as fair as judging the Lib Dem policy on sexual minorities on the basis of how Colin Breed has voted. If you want to have a picture what the mainstream of libertarianism is about, you should be reading Cato.org.

    Femme de resistance: "It's become apparently that The Libertarian Reader is a confusing bunch of essays and extracts that don't really hold together as a description of libertarian thought."

    As I answered to BarryStocker, "Libertarian Reader" (as the name implies) is mainly meant for the libertarian readers, not for outsiders trying to figure out what libertarianism is about. For that purpose, "Libertarianism - A Primer" is much a much more recommendable book.

    "I guess the argument I was making was that if libertarianism contained both minarchism and anarcho-capitalism as threads then only anarcho-capitalism seemed to be intellectually coherent."

    That's the argument anarcho-capitalists (like Rothbard) are making. However, if minarchists would agree, they probably wouldn't be minarchists. For understanding the minarchist argument I recommend reading Nozick. (I'm not very good in putting such explanations in only a few words, so it's better that you read it from the original source.)

    (Perhaps it's easier to start with Libertarianism - A Primer, Nozick can be a bit heavy reading without any preparation.)

     

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home