The Most Crucial Gap in Politics

by Gene Callahan by Gene Callahan

Picture yourself wandering into a hall within which a large, all-male crowd has assembled, each man present anxious to argue his position on the subject of wife beating. Some attendees defend their right to beat their spouse whenever she has been annoying. Others regard that stance as too permissive, asserting that wives should only be assaulted over more important matters such as, for example, family finances. Yet a third faction holds that spousal abuse is only justified in the most vital cases and only if no less onerous means can guarantee the desirable outcome: for instance, when one's wife will not contribute as much as one believes she ought to the family's security.

You find the proceedings quite disturbing, as you consider assaulting any other person to be immoral, even if it appears to be the only way to achieve some important and otherwise desirable end. Violence directed at another, you hold, is only just in self-defense, and then only to the extent necessary to thwart one's assailant.

Imagine your surprise if the members of the group that advocates wife beating only in extreme circumstances declares that they are your natural allies, proclaiming that the difference between your position and theirs is a trifling matter when contrasted with the large gap separating the minimalist beaters from those more enthusiastic about the practice.

Surely, you would demur, noting that what the minimalists have in common with the rest of the assembly, the willingness to assault one's spouse if the end it promotes is seen as being sufficiently valuable, is of far more significance than is the fact that the amount of actual beating in which the minimalists engage (say, five beatings a year) is closer to your total (zero) than it is to that of the most aggressive abusers (who might launch an assault per day).

The above situation is analogous to the one I find myself in when, for example, I am at a conference and I hear a minarchist libertarian asserting that minarchists and anarchists are separated by a narrow divide that is almost undetectable if one takes a bird's-eye perspective on the whole gamut of political positions currently being forwarded, saying, for example: "Once we reduce the scope of the state to providing defense and protecting life and property, then we minarchists and you anarchists will have plenty of time to argue about getting rid of the state completely."

While I am perfectly willing to cooperate with anyone who shares a political objective with me, I believe the above conception, that minarchists and anarchists are practically indistinguishable aside from a minor and practically irrelevant disagreement is profoundly mistaken. In fact, when it comes to what I regard as the most vital political question of them all, the gulf between minarchists and anarchists is immense, whereas that separating minarchists and, say, Stalinists is relatively small: Anarchists reject the notion that it is permissible to employ violence against someone who has not themselves committed an act of aggression, no matter how much one wants to get that innocent person to cooperate in forwarding one's desired ends, and no matter how important one believes that end to be. Minarchists, to the contrary, defend their right to initiate aggression in any circumstance where they see the use of coercion as being really, really useful. The difference between minarchists and totalitarians is one of degree: the totalitarian just sees many more of his political goals as being important enough to justify threatening innocent but recalcitrant people into contributing to their achievement than does the minimal-state libertarian. A socialist may argue that providing every citizen with free medical care is so valuable a project that it calls for the use of the State's unequaled power to coerce cooperation, while the minarchist finds no end shy of the provision of defense against non-state or foreign-state aggressors prompts him to call for compelling others to support his aims.

Nevertheless, both of them agree that, if one regards the achievement of some goal as being sufficiently worthwhile, then it is acceptable to initiate violence against those of one's fellow citizens who don't embrace it voluntarily, and even against those who merely value it less highly than oneself. (That the latter is true can be seen by considering that, even if two people agree that the State should maintain an army to defend against possible invasion, they still may differ about how much wealth to devote to that end. Then the one who supports greater military expenditures must be willing to employ force against the other fellow simply to compel him to increase his contribution beyond the level he would freely choose, absent any threat.)

Nothing I've said above implies that a minarchist, or anyone else who supports the existence of the State, is therefore necessarily a bad person. Rather, I think that for the most part probably they are basically quite decent people who simply happen to hold a mistaken idea. Indeed, some particular anarchist may be in every other respect an all-together more miserable instance of a human being than is some particular statist, despite the fact that the former happens to be right on the one issue of the State's right to exist.

Nevertheless, I see the anarchist/statist distinction as the most fundamental political divide. Once one accepts the notion that initiating aggression is OK under some circumstances, then the case for human liberty has been abandoned, and all that remains is to argue over what degree of enslavement is acceptable. Having ventured down that road, minarchist libertarians should not be surprised at the difficulties they encounter in resisting the expansion of their night-watchman state.

April 11, 2006

Gene Callahan/Stu Morgenstern Archives