Friday, July 27, 2007

A Critique of Extreme Libertarianism


A few years ago I would have joined Daniel McCarthy's defense of libertarianism ("In Defense of Freedom") against Robert Locke's attack on it ("Marxism of the Right"). Upon mature reflection, I find some of Locke's arguments persuasive; for example:

If Marxism is the delusion that one can run society purely on altruism and collectivism, then libertarianism is the mirror-image delusion that one can run it purely on selfishness and individualism. . . .

The most fundamental problem with libertarianism is very simple: freedom, though a good thing, is simply not the only good thing in life. Simple physical security, which even a prisoner can possess, is not freedom, but one cannot live without it....

Libertarians try to get around this fact that freedom is not the only good thing by trying to reduce all other goods to it through the concept of choice, claiming that everything that is good is so because we choose to partake of it. Therefore freedom, by giving us choice, supposedly embraces all other goods. But this violates common sense by denying that anything is good by nature, independently of whether we choose it. Nourishing foods are good for us by nature, not because we choose to eat them. Taken to its logical conclusion, the reduction of the good to the freely chosen means there are no inherently good or bad choices at all, but that a man who chose to spend his life playing tiddlywinks has lived as worthy a life as a Washington or a Churchill....

Libertarians rightly concede that one’s freedom must end at the point at which it starts to impinge upon another person’s, but they radically underestimate how easily this happens....

[I]f limiting freedom today may prolong it tomorrow, then limiting freedom tomorrow may prolong it the day after and so on, so the right amount of freedom may in fact be limited freedom in perpetuity....If all we want is limited freedom, then mere liberalism will do, or even better, a Burkean conservatism that reveres traditional liberties.

The extreme libertarian, on the other hand, resorts to intellectual sleight-of-hand by asserting that libertarianism has only to do with the conduct of the state. Here is McCarthy:

Libertarianism is a political philosophy, not a complete system of ethics or metaphysics. Political philosophies address specifically the state and, more generally, justice in human society. The distinguishing characteristic of libertarianism is that it applies to the state the same ethical rules that apply to everyone else....

Yes, the state seizes tax money and jails those who do not pay, actions that would be denounced as gangsterism if undertaken by a private organization. But if the only way life can go on is to have the government provide defense and other necessities, such expropriations might have to be called something other than robbery.

Moderate libertarians say just that. They propose that the state should do those necessary things that it alone can do—and only those things. Radical libertarians contend there is nothing good that only the state can provide—even its seemingly essential functions are better served by the market and voluntary institutions. The differences between thoroughgoing libertarians and moderates are profound, but the immediate prescriptions of each are similar enough: cut taxes, slash spending, no more foreign adventurism.

McCarthy reveals that he is a radical, "thoroughgoing" libertarian when he assails "foreign adventurism" -- a cheap rhetorical trick aimed at excluding libertarian hawks from the ranks of libertarianism.


I take issue with McCarthy and his fellow travelers on the "right wing" of libertarianism. I argue, specifically, that

  • libertarianism is more than a "political philosophy" that addresses the state, it is a prescription for how individuals should live their lives;
  • it is pure sophistry (or naïveté) to assert that "there is nothing good that only the state can provide"; and
  • the state, properly understood, is not a discrete "thing," it is simply the inevitable means by which a group or society regulates relations among its members when there are too many of them to act by consensus.


A political philosophy -- any political philosophy -- has implications for how individuals live their lives. Consider national defense, a subject about which McCarthy evidently has strong views. He calls taxation for the purpose of providing defense a form of robbery; he sees preemptive warfare as foreign adventurism. Libertarians of McCarthy's ilk argue against preemptive war from the non-aggression principle. The problem with the non-aggression principle in the hands of radical libertarians is that it becomes a non-preemption principle. But preemption may in fact be necessary to the defense of liberty, as I have argued here and here.

A political philosophy that would do away with the state most certainly is a prescription for how people will be forced to live their lives -- and it is a poisonous prescription: We can rely on "private defense agencies" to keep the peace, at home and abroad, and we would have fewer enemies abroad if we only "minded our own business."


Before addressing private defense agencies, I must say a thing or two about the notion of "minding our own business," which is a naïvely dangerous view of the world on two counts. First, it assumes that having and defending overseas economic interests is, somehow, not "our own business." Second, it entrusts the safekeeping of those interests to the beneficence of others. It is as if Hitler, Stalin, bin Laden, and their ilk did not, do not, and could not exist.

Now, to private defense agencies. I once wrote this about extreme libertarianism (known also as anarcho-capitalism):

Among the important particulars not accounted for by anarcho-capitalists is the method of resolving disputes between those who agree to settle their differences without resorting to violence and those persons (foreign as well as domestic) who simply refuse to be bound by such agreements. Anarcho-capitalists, in their blindness to that bit of reality, insist on applying the non-aggression principle to inter-state relations, thus effectively granting immunity to lawless states simply because they have not yet attacked us.

Anarcho-capitalists, in effect, have created a fantasy world in which the American state is unnecessary because anarcho-capitalists do not like what it sometimes does. Anarcho-capitalists believe that, somehow or other, the absence of the state will culminate in the advent of nirvana.

. . . The real question . . . is how to channel the power of the American state toward the defense of liberty. The Constitution of the United States, in its original meaning, offers the best practical answer to that question. Anarcho-capitalists will object that the original Constitution was imperfect (e.g., it condoned slavery) and that its desirable provisions (e.g., the Bill of Rights) have been implemented imperfectly. Such arguments assume that perfection would have overtaken us in a stateless world.

Anarcho-capitalism, in sum, is a belief in the impossible. It is the wrong standard by which to judge the possible. The right standard, simply stated, is this: When faced with politically feasible policy options, support the ones that advance liberty rather than those which detract from it.

Incremental but real steps toward liberty are infinitely superior to the self-indulgent but politically irrelevant fantasies of anarcho-capitalism.

McCarthy doesn't go so far as to offer the extreme libertarian's usual alternative to state power, which is the creation of "private defense agencies," but I can tell that he is itching to do so. I have addressed that pipe-dream in several posts, including this one, in which I commented on an article by one Robert Murphy, who

assumes that if the vast majority of people agree that it's wrong to use violence to settle disputes, then that won't happen. Do the vast majority of people believe that it's wrong to use violence to settle disputes? Perhaps, but it doesn't take a vast majority to inject violence into a society; it takes only a relatively small number of renegades, who may be then be able to coerce others into condoning or supporting their criminal activities. . . .

What Murphy doesn't entertain is the possibility that a small but very rich cabal could create a dominant defense agency that simply refuses to recongize other defense agences, except as enemies. In other words, there's nothing in Murphy's loose logic to prove that warlords wouldn't arise. In fact, he soon gives away the game:

Imagine a bustling city, such as New York, that is initially a free market paradise. Is it really plausible that over time rival gangs would constantly grow, and eventually terrorize the general public? Remember, these would be admittedly criminal organizations; unlike the city government of New York, there would be no ideological support for these gangs.

We must consider that in such an environment, the law-abiding majority would have all sorts of mechanisms at their [sic] disposal, beyond physical confrontation. Once private judges had ruled against a particular rogue agency, the private banks could freeze its assets (up to the amount of fines levied by the arbitrators). In addition, the private utility companies could shut down electricity and water to the agency'’s headquarters, in accordance with standard provisions in their contracts.

Pardon me while I laugh at the notion that lack of "ideological support" for the gangs of New York would make it impossible for gangs to grow and terrorize the general public. That's precisely what has happened at various times during the history of New York, even though the "law-abiding majority [had] all sorts of mechanisms at [its] disposal." Murphy insists on hewing to the assumption that the existence of a law-abiding majority somehow prevents the rise a powerful, law-breaking minorities, capable of terrorizing the general public. Wait a minute; now he admits the converse:

Of course, it is theoretically possible that a rogue agency could overcome these obstacles, either through intimidation or division of the spoils, and take over enough banks, power companies, grocery stores, etc. that only full-scale military assault would conquer it. But the point is, from an initial position of market anarchy, these would-be rulers would have to start from scratch. In contrast, under even a limited government, the machinery of mass subjugation is ready and waiting to be seized.

Huh? It's certainly more than theoretically possible for a "rogue agency" to wreak havoc. A "rogue agency" is nothing more than a fancy term for a street gang, the Mafia, or al Qaeda cells operating in the U.S. A "rogue agency" run by and on behalf of rich and powerful criminals -- for their own purposes -- would somehow be preferable to police forces and courts operated by a limited government that is accountable to the general public, rich and poor alike? I don't think so. However much the American state engages in "mass subjugation" -- and it does, to a degree -- it is also held in check by its accountability to the general public under American law and tradition. A "rogue agency," by definition, would be unbound by law and tradition.

Murphy's analysis takes place in a land called "Erewhon." He chooses to ignore the fact that he lives in the United States because he wasn't a party to the Constitution. Yet that Constitution provides for a limited government, which in more than 200 years has yet to engage in systematic, mass subjugation of the kind practiced in the Third Reich and the Soviet Union, except in the case of slavery. And guess what? The American state ended slavery. How's that for mass subjugation?

Anyone can conjure a Utopia, as Murphy has. But no one can guarantee that it will work. Murphy certainly hasn't made the case that his Utopia would work.

In any event, by focusing on intra-societal violence Murphy ignores completely two crucial questions: (1) Can an anarchistic society effectively defend itself against an outside force? (2) Can it do so better than a society in which the state has a monopoly on the use of force with respect to outside entities? Murphy implies that the answer to both questions is "yes," though he fails to explore those questions. Here is my brief answer: The cost of mounting a credible defense of the United States from foreign enemies probably would support only one supplier; that is, national defense is a natural monopoly. It is better for the American state -- given its accountability to the general public -- to be that supplier. . . .

A wasteful, accountable, American state is certainly preferable to an efficient, private, defense agency in possession of the same military might. Hitler and Stalin, in effect, ran private defense agencies, and look where that landed the Germans and Russians. Talk about subjugation.


Contrary to Murphy and his ilk, there is no such thing as statelessness, at least not for groups larger than, say, hunter-gatherer bands or Hutterite colonies. Why? Because it is impossible for a group of more than a few dozen or a dozen-dozen persons to live together in pure consensus. In the end, a faction will dominate the group (a shifting faction, perhaps). And that faction will define harms that may be punished, punish those harms (i.e., administer justice), and take responsibility for the group's defense.

The state is not a "thing" to be kept at bay; it is the mechanism by which a people enforces justice and defends itself against outsiders.The questions facing a group always are these: Upon what principles shall we found and guide the state, and to whom shall we entrust the the functions of the state?

Consider this:

A group of persons may be said to live in anarchy only if all of the rules that affect everyone in the group (e.g., where to live, how best to defend the group against predators) are made by unanimous, informed consent, which might be tacit. It follows, then, that a group might -- by unanimous, informed consent -- give a subset of its members the authority to make such decisions. The group's members might delegate such authority, willingly and unanimously, because each member believes it to be in his or her best interest to do so. (The reasons for that belief might vary, but they probably would include the notion of comparative advantage; that is, those who are not in the governing subset would have time to pursue those activities at which they are most productive.) With a governing subset -- or government -- the group would no longer live in anarchy, even if the group remains harmonious and membership in it remains voluntary.

The government becomes illegitimate only when it exceeds its grant of authority and resists efforts to curb those excesses or to redefine the grant of authority. The passage of time, during which there are changes in the group's membership, does not deligitimate the government as long as the group's new members voluntarily assent to governance. Voluntary assent, as discussed above, may consist simply in choosing to remain a member of the group.

Now, ask yourself how likely it is that a group larger than, say, a nuclear family or a band of hunter-gatherers might choose to go without a government. Self-interest dictates that even relatively small groups will choose -- for reasons of economy, if nothing else -- to place certain decisions in the hands of a government.

All talk of anarchy as a viable option to limited government is nothing more than talk. Empy talk, at that.


The political view that there should not be a state, if followed to its logical conclusion, would leave most Americans prey to the very real predators who lurk at home and abroad. Those very real predators care not one whit about non-aggression principles and contractual obligations, contrary to the assertions of Gustave de Molinari, a favorite of anarcho-capitalists, who wrote this:

Under a regime of liberty, the natural organization of the security industry would not be different from that of other industries. In small districts a single entrepreneur could suffice. This entrepreneur might leave his business to his son, or sell it to another entrepreneur. In larger districts, one company by itself would bring together enough resources adequately to carry on this important and difficult business. If it were well managed, this company could easily last, and security would last with it. In the security industry, just as in most of the other branches of production, the latter mode of organization will probably replace the former, in the end.

The "customers would not allow themselves to be conquered"? Tell that to those who pay gangsters for "protection," and to the residents of gang-ridden areas. Molinari conveniently forgets that the ranks of "competitors" are open to those who, in their viciousness, will and do attack the persons and property of their rivals. If not everyone is honorable, as Molinari admits elsewhere in his essay, why would we expect private providers of security be honorable? Why would they not extort their customers while fighting each other? The result is bound to be something worse than life under an accountable state monopoly (such as we have in the U.S.) -- something fraught with violence and fear. Think of The Roaring Twenties without the glossy coat of Hollywood glamour.

Molinari and his anarcho-libertarian descendants exhibit the Anne Frank syndrome. About three weeks before Frank and her family were betrayed and arrested, she wrote:

It'’s a wonder I haven'’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.

McCarthy, Murphy, Molinari, and their ilk do not proclaim the jejune belief that all "people are truly good at heart," yet they persist in the belief that the security can be achieved in the absence of an accountable state. That is, like Anne Frank, they assume -- contrary to all evidence -- that "people are truly good at heart." But competition, by itself, does not and cannot prevent criminal acts.

Competition, to be beneficial, must be conducted within the framework of a rule of law. That rule of law must be enforced by a state which is accountable to its citizens for the preservation of their liberty. The present rule of law in the United States is far from perfect, but it is far more perfect than the alternative that is dreamt of by extreme libertarians.


As I wrote here, extreme libertarianism

rests on invalid conceptions of human nature and the state. Contrary to the evidence of history, it presumes that no one would or could accrue and exercise enough power to flout the common law and treat other persons coercively. Contrary to the evidence of history -- especially American history -- it presumes that a properly constituted and governed state cannot increase the quotient of liberty.

There is no choice between anarchy and the state. Anarchy leads inexorably to coercion -- except in a dreamworld. The real between the toughest guy on the block or a state whose actions are capable of redirection through our representative democracy.

The proper task at hand for American libertarians isn't to do away with the state but to work toward a state that defends free markets, property rights, the common law, and freedom of contract.

Another task for American libertarians is to work toward devolution of power back to the individual States and, within the States, to the lowest possible level. The key to liberty is the ability of the individual to pick and choose among a variety of "experiments" in government. That is true federalism.

Related posts:
Libertarian Nay-Saying on Foreign and Defense Policy (06/29/04)
Libertarianism and Preemptive War: Part I (07/10/04)
Libertarian Nay-Saying on Foreign and Defense Policy, Revisited (07/23/04)
An Aside about Libertarianism and War (08/02/04)
More about Libertarian Hawks and Doves (09/24/04)
Defense, Anarcho-Capitalist Style (09/26/04)
The State of Nature (12/05/04)
Getting Neolibertarianism Wrong (04/19/05)
Fundamentalist Libertarians, Anarcho-Capitalists, and Self-Defense (04/22/05)
The Legitimacy of the Constitution (05/09/05)
Another Thought about Anarchy (05/10/05)
Anarcho-Capitalism vs. the State (05/26/05)
Rights and the State (06/13/05)
The Essential Case for Consequentialist Libertarianism (07/10/05)
But Wouldn't Warlords Take Over? (07/26/05)
Sorting Out the Libertarian Hawks and Doves (07/27/05)
A Paradox for Libertarians (08/04/05)
A Non-Paradox for Libertarians (08/15/05)
Common Ground for Conservatives and Libertarians? (09/04/05)
Liberty or Self-Indulgence? (10/10/05)
Some Thoughts about Liberty (11/23/05)
Libertarianism and Preemptive War: Part II (11/27/05)
Give Me Liberty or Give Me Non-Aggression? (12/08/05)
My View of Warlordism, Seconded (12/15/05)
Anarchy: An Empty Concept (12/20/05)
The Paradox of Libertarianism (01/05/06)
The Fatal Naïveté of Anarcho-Libertarianism (01/28/06)
Liberty as a Social Compact (02/28/06)
Social Norms and Liberty (03/02/06)
A Footnote about Liberty and the Social Compact (03/06/06)
Liberty and Federalism (03/12/06)
Finding Liberty (03/25/06)

See also (at Favorite Posts):
Libertarianism and Other Political Philosophies
War, Self-Defense, and Civil Liberties