Extreme Libertarianism vs. the Accountable State

I left the following comment on a post at Policy of Truth:

[Another commenter] says “Most libertarians have their entire identity tied up in an a priori commitment to its never, ever being necessary or justified for the state to do anything like issuing and enforcing stay-at-home orders.” That nails it. Error and corruption are human traits, not just government traits. There is a fine line between too much government and not enough of it, and the line has been crossed in the wrong direction (too much) in many, many ways. But that doesn’t mean that there are no cases in which there isn’t enough government.

There’s a history behind my comment. It reflects a position that I staked out long ago (in blog time), and which I stated at length thirteen years ago, in “A Critique of Extreme Libertarianism“. The position is a rejection of the extreme libertarian (anarcho-capitalist) idea that the police and defense functions of government can be and should be provided by private defense agencies (i.e., security contractors). Here are some relevant excerpts (which include links to earlier posts in the same vein):

THE “GOOD” THAT ONLY A STATE CAN PROVIDE

… I have addressed that pipe-dream [private defense agencies] 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.

THE STATE: AN INEVITABLE CREATURE OF SOCIETY

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. Empty talk, at that.

EXTREME LIBERTARIANISM’S FATAL FLAW: THE “ANNE FRANK SYNDROME”

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.

… 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.

THE PROPER LIBERTARIAN AGENDA

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 choice … is 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.

Anarcho-capitalism exemplifies a nirvana fallacy, in that it posits an unrealistic, unattainable alternative to the inevitable imperfections that accompany state rule. Anarchists have offered examples of “successful anarchies”, but the ones that I have seen have one thing in common: state sponsorship and protection (e.g., here).

Which leads me to an alternative (whose realism and attainability I will discuss) — a central government that is constrained to do the following:

  • Defend Americans and their overseas interests against foreign predators.
  • Ensure the free flow of trade among Americans without intervention, except to bar the sale or disclosure of products, service, or information detrimental to defense.
  • Guarantee due process of law, property rights, freedom of association, freedom of political speech, and free exercise of religion (consistent with the foregoing) throughout the United States.
  • Leave the rest to the States and their political subdivisions, provided that they do not interfere with or violate the preceding constraints.

That’s not an exact description of the state of affairs in the U.S. from 1789 to the late 1800s, but with a few significant (and since remedied) exceptions it is an approximate description. There was, of course, slavery and then injustice toward blacks on a vast scale. And there were many lesser failures, too, including the denial of suffrage to women.

A more perfect state of affairs would be one in which “the clock is turned back” on the central government’s myriad interventions since the late 1800s, except for those that are obviously just (e.g., the abolition of slavery, the end of Jim Crow, voting rights for blacks and women). I describe turning back the clock in that way because big-government advocates like to claim that those of us who wish to roll back the central government’s power also long for a replication of the 19th century. Balderdash!

At any rate, turning back the clock would be difficult, as evidenced by the continued growth of government power since the days of Teddy Roosevelt’s imperial presidency, despite not inconsiderable resistance and brief periods of abatement. Why is that? Because the growth of government is always rationalized as doing what’s necessary to “help” X, Y, and Z (sometimes by penalizing A, B, and C) — even though X, Y, Z, and their progeny are made the poorer for it.

But if the history of the past several decades shows anything, it shows that unremitting pressure to roll back the central government’s power can succeed in slowing its growth and even, in some areas, reversing it. The successes are due to two developments:

  • The election of Republican presidents and majorities in Congress. (Not all Republicans are devoted to smaller government, despite the lip-service most of them pay to that objective, but all Democrats, as far as I can tell, are devoted to the enlargement of government.)
  • The taming of the administrative state — the conglomeration of agencies that wields discretionary power to interpret and elaborate the broad powers entrusted to it, and then to execute and adjudicate its own interpretations and elaborations. (The taming will be done by Republicans it is done by anyone.)

The second development is as crucial than the first, because the administrative state cannot be regrown overnight, even with Democrats in charge.

A government in which the administrative state has been subdued is bound to act more like an accountable government. The acts of elected officials — and the consequence of those acts — will be more visible to the electorate if they take place in the spotlights that shine on Congress and the White House than if they are concealed in the shadows of the bureaucracy.

That’s the best that I can offer. It’s realistic and attainable, unlike the nirvana offered by libertarians.