TGIF: Limited Government’s Bait and Switch

by | Sep 29, 2023

TGIF: Limited Government’s Bait and Switch

by | Sep 29, 2023

gort

In a fundamental respect, libertarian minarchism (minimal, or limited, government) and market anarchism (or anarcho-capitalism) have something important in common: neither can guarantee individual rights.

But there’s a big difference: unlike market anarchism, minarchism appears to offer a guarantee, which allegedly makes it preferable to market anarchism. Actually, it’s a false guarantee, a bait-and-switch. So it’s not preferable to market anarchism, at least on those grounds.

However, what market anarchism can do is show how everyday incentives will tend to protect liberty (and already do now). Minarchism can’t credibly say the same thing because constitutionally limited representative democracy is riddled with well-known perverse political incentives. That makes market anarchism the better bet.

It’s instructive to watch the recent Soho Forum debate on the proposition “Anarcho-capitalism would definitely be a complete disaster for humanity.” Yaron Brook, chairman of the Ayn Rand Institute, took the affirmative, and Bryan Caplan, libertarian professor of economics at George Mason University, took the negative. I think Caplan demolished Brook’s case, which isn’t exclusive to Ayn Rand Objectivists. This was a debate between two people starting from similar premises in favor of individual freedom, rational self-interest, and competition.

While what follows may not convince anyone to advocate market anarchism, it should eliminate a big argument against it.

Most limited-government advocates think that only a monopoly government can produce the objective law and fair and peaceful adjudication/enforcement that human beings need to flourish. The problem, as indicated, is that minarchism is all talk. It can’t deliver.

Remember the old joke in which a tourist asks a grumpy local how to get somewhere? The local responds, “You can’t get there from here.” That’s the problem. Brook’s theory of constitutionally limited government promises to get us to a place we cannot go because it doesn’t exist. Why not? As Dr. Seuss might say, because it’s people all the way down. Limited-government advocates ignore this obvious fact.

Contrary to its fans, limited government is conceptually impossible. It, not anarchism, is a “floating abstraction.” If this standard argument for limited government disappears, what’s left?

Any advocate of liberty who knows even a little U.S. political history should see the problem for minarchism. In freedom-loving quarters, the American constitutional system wins kudos  — the obvious serious contradictions such as slavery excepted. But what about the government’s horrendous expansion since 1789? Isn’t that a hint that something did not quite work?

Some Americans began complaining about the bigness of the national government at the turn of the 19th century! And let’s not forget that the first constitution, the Articles of Confederation, denied the national quasi-government the power to tax and regulate trade. Within a few years, that changed. Wasn’t that a bad omen?

Anarcho-libertarian abolitionist and businessman Lysander Spooner’s 1870 “The Constitution of No Authority” concluded, “But whether the Constitution really be one thing, or another, this much is certain — that it has either authorized such a government as we have had, or has been powerless to prevent it. In either case it is unfit to exist.”

The Constitution has not guaranteed freedom. Brook himself called today’s U.S. government a “gang.” So what could have been different, minarchists? A nation full of perfect Objectivists? Good luck with that.

The Soho Forum debate, which I highly recommend, could have been over early when Caplan identified the impossible guarantee. Brook responded that his ideal government would “strive” to make that guarantee. Caplan pointed out that a striven-for guarantee is not a guarantee.

Undeterred, Brook resorted to the catechism “A proper government is the means by which we place retaliatory use of force under objective control and objectively defined laws … for the purpose of protecting rights.”

Caplan called this mere “tautological.” You can define the term proper government as an objective and reliable rights-protector. But in the real world, how do you get there from anywhere? It sounds Platonic. It’s more like a version of the ontological argument.

Brook also said that the banishment of force from society “doesn’t just happen. That’s not something you negotiate. That is just something that is.” (My emphasis.)

“Just is”? What does that mean? How does it materialize — immaculate conception? And how would it be maintained? Is the state an infallible Objectivist Mr. Spock? Or Gort, the robot in The Day the Earth Stood Still? (The original movie costarred Patricia Neal, who ironically also played heroine Dominique Francon in the film version of Rand’s The Fountainhead.)

Remember, it’s people all the way down — from inception of the government to maintenance. People are fallible. They disagree. They change their minds. They ask for free stuff from politicians. Some will even be corrupt and dishonest when they run for office. And, as Public Choice shows, the ones in government are prone to bias in favor of their careers. No one can reasonably hope to keep a government limited, nonaggressive, and efficient — a square circle indeed. Is a New Man required? (See my take on someone who long grappled with this question, Anthony de Jasy.)

Pro-market economist Harold Demsetz warned against the “Nirvana fallacy”: positing an unachievable “ideal” as an alternative to anything that can be achieved. That’s what we have here in limited government. If it isn’t on the actual menu, we must determine the best actual alternative.

Caplan repeatedly challenged Brook with this basic objection, but Brook bobbed and weaved. (See the exchange starting here.) He seems not to have read anything but Rand’s 1960s essay on the need for government, predicting routine widespread violence under market anarchism. But she was answered many times. Brook casually dismissed the voluminous market-anarchist historical, economic, and ethical scholarship as a mere intellectual exercise.

It was good to hear that Book supports free immigration. Among its many virtues, it would be a potential escape from tyranny. But why shouldn’t people be free to “migrate” from one rights-protecting institution to another without changing location? Brook says a location (undefined) must have one law. But Western Europe doesn’t have one law. Yet he agreed with Caplan that, unlike in previous eras, a war between, say, France and Germany or Norway and Sweden is unthinkable and will very likely remain so.

Caplan noted that what keeps the big governments in those countries from fighting (which would be made possible by taxation and conscription) is people’s general expectation of peaceful dispute resolution. That would apply even more to accountable, reputable, and competitive businesses selling security to free customers.

War isn’t impossible in Western Europe and elsewhere, just unlikely in our more pacific era. (See Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.) Yes, Russia and Ukraine are at war. But how many of the almost 200 countries in our anarchist world without a super-government would rather fight costly wars even for the winner than settle disputes diplomatically? (For an analogy, think of what two auto insurance companies routinely do when each has a client in a conflict. The companies already have contracts to deal with each other peacefully. They couldn’t afford a Randian war of all against all.)

Well, why does market anarchism, unlike minarchism, inspire reasonable confidence about the chances of protecting liberty? That’s a topic for another day, but suffice it to say that, as Caplan argues, rational self-interest, free competition, the need for a good reputation, and today’s general expectation of peaceful conflict resolution provide our best chance. This doesn’t mean pushing the “anarchist button,” which doesn’t exist anyway. It means showing people that major alternatives to the state already exist, including arbitration and private security firms.

It is said that freedom isn’t free. Protection of freedom certainly isn’t free. But we need not be forced to pay monopoly prices for inferior services and even rights violations in order to enjoy our freedom.

More reading

Roderick Long, “Market Anarchism as Constitutionalism.”
Sheldon Richman, “The Constitution of Anarchy,” in America’s Counter-Revolution: The Constitution Revisited.
David D. Friedman, The Machinery of Freedom: A Guide to Radical Capitalism, 3d ed.

 

About Sheldon Richman

Sheldon Richman is the executive editor of The Libertarian Institute and a contributing editor at Antiwar.com. He is the former senior editor at the Cato Institute and Institute for Humane Studies; former editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education; and former vice president at the Future of Freedom Foundation. His latest books are Coming to Palestine and What Social Animals Owe to Each Other.

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