The State Debate: Some or None?

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Anarchism/Minarchism: Is a Government Part of a Free Country? Edited by Roderick T. Long and Tibor R. Machan. Ashgate, 2008. Xi + 196 pages. An MP3 audio version of this book review, read by Dr. Floy Lilley, is available for download.

Libertarians of course believe in the free market; if you find someone who favors the government provision of medical care or education, e.g., you know immediately that he is not a full-fledged libertarian. But how far can one take the free market? Can it handle absolutely all the essential services of society, including defense and justice? Here libertarians split: some, the individualist anarchists, answer yes, but others, often termed minarchists, decline to go this far. (Samuel Konkin coined the term "minarchism," but he is not mentioned in this book.) They contend that these services need to be supplied by a monopoly agency: within a given territory, this agency can forcibly exclude other agencies from competing with it. Often, but not always, as Tibor Machan anxiously reminds us, minarchists favor taxation to pay for these services. Anarchism/Minarchism offers a very useful survey of this controversy, with essays, mostly by philosophers, on both sides.

In one respect, though, the book is surprising. The most frequent criticism of anarchism among economists is that defense and justice are public goods, i.e., goods characterized by jointness of supply and nonexcludability, which the free market cannot efficiently supply. Though Roderick Long briefly mentions the public-goods argument, it receives little attention in the book. Quite the contrary, the principal criticism of anarchism posed by the minarchists here represented is that a free society requires an objective, uniform law code, a demand anarchism cannot satisfy.

The minarchists derive this criticism in large part from Ayn Rand. John Roger Lee (now, I regret to say, deceased) poses the essential point concisely: "Anarchistic libertarianism illegitimately and self-defeatingly presupposes the existence of contract law in its account of how law and its enforcement would come to exist and have an ongoing role in an anarchistic society" (p. 18). Lee’s argument rests on a suppressed and highly contestable premise. Why does the existence of contract law require a state to create it? As we shall see later, the view that the state created contract law is false; but here, it is important to realize that Lee has advanced a much more extreme claim. His assertion is that contract law conceptually requires a state.

Why should one believe such a thing? Suppose people for the most part accept a libertarian scheme of rights — this, by the way, was the only circumstance in which Murray Rothbard considered viable an anarchist polity — would they not have, contrary to Lee, contract law without a state? (The issue, once more, is for now not whether this is likely but whether it is possible.)

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October 30, 2008

David Gordon [send him mail] is a senior fellow at the Ludwig von Mises Institute and editor of its Mises Review. He is also the author of The Essential Rothbard. See also his Books on Liberty.

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