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Government is Inevitable January 29, 2009

Posted by federalist in Government, Natural Rights.

I recently quipped, “A Minarchist is an Anarchist who has been mugged,” summarizing my conclusion after much debate that anarchists do not have a practicable social philosophy.  I just found Randall Holcombe’s excellent essay from The Independent Review (2004), “Government: Unnecessary but Inevitable,” in which he clearly explains why even starting from an anarchist condition any surviving society will inevitably converge on an equilibrium in which every individual is subject to a coercive government.  His arguments and illustrations are worth reading in full.  His conclusions:

One can debate the merits of anarchy in theory, but the real-world libertarian issue is not whether it would more be desirable to establish a limited government or to eliminate government altogether.

People may not need or want government, but inevitably they will find themselves under government’s jurisdiction.

A challenge to advocates of a minimal state is to explain how people can create and sustain preemptively a liberty-preserving government. 

I hew to Constitutional minarchy because though I subscribe to libertarian principles I also realize that a practical society requires some formal institutions of order that can’t depend on the voluntary consent of every individual.  Anarchists can’t resist this “Gotcha!  You say coercion is illegitimate and yet you support coercive institutions.”  Which is true: Even minarchy is illegitimate in principle.  But it is the only practical means of preserving our liberty.  Or, put another way, in the real world individual liberty is maximized under Mises-style minarchy (i.e., government constituted solely for the purpose of protecting individual liberty and private property).

Therefore, our goal as libertarians should not be the final destruction of all governments, but rather vigilance against the ones we have.



1. federalist - February 3, 2009

A good critique of Holcombe’s paper by Leeson and Stringham, followed by his response is here.

I think Holcombe grants too much quarter on the Somalia example. To recognize a society in relative anarchy at one moment in time does not demonstrate that anarchy might be a stable/equilibrium point. Nor is it clear that Somalia is in anarchy.

Holcombe suggests that governments and mafias don’t rush in to seize power when there is nothing worth seizing. Since there is no longer an international market for slaves people themselves, as property, are not inherently valuable. Maybe there are local uses for slaves in Somalia. But otherwise it would be incumbent on anarchist apologists to point to something of value in that supposed anarchy that is not subject to control by government, mafia, warlords, or bandits. The fact that all around them abjectly impoverished people are free from any rule of law does not mean that the society is in anarchy. In this case it might instead mean that those people are financially worthless.

2. federalist - February 6, 2009

Rothbard made a practical argument similar to mine, but in favor of libertarian anarchy.

What we assert is that, given any particular degree of “goodness” or “badness” among men, the purely libertarian society will be at once the most moral and the most efficient, the least criminal and the most secure of person or property.

I.e., men are not perfect, and so no social utopia of any type is attainable in practice. But we believe that independent of the depravity of man some social structures are more prosperous and moral than others.

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