A Libertarian Quarrel

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Within
the USA there has always been a relatively strong libertarian voice,
in contrast to most other countries. And within the libertarian
movement two strands have quarreled in a civil but not altogether
gentle tone.

I
have in mind the argument between those who believe in limited government
– usually called minarchists – versus those who want no
government at all – called anarchists. (This last, however,
does not, akin to classical anarchists, reject all laws and their
enforcement.) Before discussing these two positions, it will help
to place libertarianism in perspective. Throughout human intellectual
history there have always been a few voices raised against statism,
the belief that in human communities sovereignty rests with the
government. This is embraced in monarchy, socialism, fascism, communism,
and theocracies. Government is seen either as God-on-earth or the-will-of-the-people
(as a whole). In all these statist outlooks the individual members
of society are taken to be subservient, lowly beings, or simply
cells in the body of the society, which is the locus of value.

Now
and then statist views have been challenged but since power has
been concentrated in the state, they rarely got sufficient airing.
When government owns the presses, forums of discussion such as universities,
or parks where speeches may be given, it is no wonder those who
support one or another version of the powerful state stand in the
limelight, with the few opposite voices basically marginalized if
not killed off outright. After a while, though, governments proved
to be so corrupt, so unruly, and so capricious that too many folks
began to see it as a threat and the ruse that it is. The lie that
it's God's representative on earth or it expresses the will of the
people just could not be made believable enough to suppress all
the opposition. The power of monarchs – tsars, pharaohs, and such – began to be questioned and in time contained. The idea that royals
aren't anything special, after all – that all the self-important
ministers and their favored nobility were just pretending to be
endowed with special rights (divine rights, it used to be called) – began to catch on.

Eventually,
certain thinkers who studied these heretical thoughts developed
solid arguments and got published somehow and the notion of the
sovereignty of human individuals, as opposed to states, became palatable
enough to inspire influential and clever people to translate them
into law and public policy. The American Founders were the most
successful of these people, managing to declare to the world that
it is individual human beings who have unalienable rights to their
lives, to their liberties and to the pursuit of their happiness.
However much or little they succeeded in curtailing the powers of
the state, the idea that this may well be a good idea could no longer
be kept out of circulation.

Unfortunately,
bad habits are difficult to shed, so the actual legal order they
forged didn't fully recognize and protect unalienable individual
human rights. And many elements of the old system were kept intact,
such as taxation, conscription, secondary citizenship for various
groups, and so even slavery. But the cat was out of the bag, intellectually
– as Abe Lincoln somewhat duplicitously put it, "No man
is good enough to govern another man without that other's consent."

The
result was the eventual development of the libertarian alternative
to all varieties of statism. This development, however, didn't resolve
one of the questions that has always been on the minds of political
thinkers, namely, whether government of any type is evil, a criminal
organization disguised as something necessary for society or is
the a germ of legitimacy to the institution, only it has been twisted
by power hungry rulers and their apologists to serve corrupt ends.

Libertarians,
unlike old line anarchist, recognize the value of law and even law
enforcement. What some of them argued is that any law enforcement
agency must itself be deprived of its monopoly status, be competitive,
so it is subject to a repeated cleansing process. Just like other
things people want or need, law, too, must be possible to be offered
by many agents who can provide it.

Those
libertarians who think government has merit, provided it is kept
within proper bounds, disagree with this but only to a relatively
minor degree. They think that in some ways law enforcement will
always be monopolistic, but not different from, say, how an apartment
house or department store is monopolistic – namely, only one can
exist in one geographical spot. If you want to get to a competing
agency, you need to move there.

Most
libertarians do not see this as a deal-breaking dispute. They are
mainly concerned with the central point: Who is to rule our lives?
Is it to be individuals, within their own delimited sphere, wherein
no one may enter who hasn't obtained permission, where no governing
may occur unless consent of the governed has been given? Or is it
to be some self-selected persons or groups, people who either rule
others on their own initiative or who claim to speak for everyone
and impose their (majority, minority) plans on all, never mind consent.

The
libertarian alternative is still marginalized. This is perhaps analogous
to how the idea of equal standing under the law for women is marginalized
across the globe. Both of these ideas, of course, deserve a serious
hearing and, as best as I can tell, ultimate success.

February
17, 2004

Tibor
Machan [send
him mail
] holds
the Freedom Communications Professorship of Free Enterprise and
Business Ethics at the Argyros School of Business & Economics, Chapman
University, CA. A Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
University, he is author of 20+ books, most recently, Putting
Humans First: Why We Are Nature’s Favorite
.

Tibor
Machan Archives


        
        

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