Anarchism, Minarchism, and the Libertarian Label

This article comes directly from a certain line of reasoning that I see all throughout the libertarian world and it has come, as of late, even into the Reformed Libertarian Facebook Group that I help to admin. I hope that the following article will prove to be a one stop solution and will encourage more nuance in the anarchist/minarchist dichotomy. For more on the nuance and the trouble with defining the terms, please see my article here. Important: I am using the anarchist label according to the Rothbardian, propertarian, anarcho-capitalist definition and if the reader is not sure he is familiar with this definition, please see the linked article in the previous sentence.

Let me start here with an overview of the dichotomy as I conceive it. I find that the common articulation of the anarchist/minarchist divide is too simplistic. One way of expressing this simplistic articulation is this: “anarchists are against government and minarchists want a limited government.” I find this profoundly unhelpful and instead (a la this article linked above) prefer the distinction as: anarchists desire government to 1) be funded via voluntary means and 2) to not have a territorial monopoly on their services; whereas minarchists desire government to 1) be funded via taxation and 2) to have a territorial monopoly on their services.

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With that as the foundation, let us get to the content of the present problem. My thesis is two-fold: 1) Both anarchists and minarchists have equal claim to the libertarian label and 2) There is more nuance to the categories anarchist and minarchist such that libertarians aren’t to be pitted against each other solely on the basis of whether they are anarchist or minarchist, but rather based on their definition of libertarianism. One implication of this is that I contend that there is a more natural relationship between some in the anarchist camp with some in the minarchist camp than necessarily between all members of the anarchists. This paragraph is very important to understand. Make sure you do.

Let’s start with point one. The definition of libertarianism is the legal theory (which has political ramifications) which holds that no man may initiate aggression, or threat to initiate aggression, against the property of another human being, lest he engage in criminal behavior. That is to say, under the libertarian legal theory, a criminal is defined as one who breaches the above described “Non-Aggression Principle.” The logically deduced implications of this principle includes actions such as theft, murder, rape, fraud, breach of contract, trespassing, battery, kidnapping, and so on. For the libertarian, that which is illegal is determined in terms of private property ownership and therefore not all things that may be categorized as immoral, unethical, sinful, and so on are necessarily criminal.

The implication of legal (legally innocent) and illegal (criminal) under this scheme are that legal actions are not to be responded to with coercion, while illegal actions are to be responded to with coercion. As Murray Rothbard writes:

For it should never be forgotten that a libertarian society does not mean the total absence of coercion but only the absence of coercion against noncriminals. Those who invade the rights of others by violence deserve their proper check and punishment by the force of law.

That is to say, if something is illegal, it means that someone may prosecute and punish those who engage in it; and if something is legal, no one may prosecute and punish those who engage in it.

The difference between minarchists and anarchists, then, are not that they would disagree with any of the above, but rather, how the someone should be funded for his services and whether that someone may restrict the competition of the services that he is providing. For the minarchists, as defined in the present essay, the enforcement of the illegality of NAP-behavior is to be taken up by a tax-funded and monopolist* government; while for the anarchists, such an enforcement role is to be taken up by a voluntarily funded and non-monopolist government.

Thus, it is my position that because the minarchists and the anarchists both agree with the definition of criminal and crime, they are both libertarians. One might say that the anarchists take the libertarian principle to its logical conclusion such that they apply the Non-Aggression Principle even to the government itself, and this is entirely true: the anarchist is the logically consistent one. But the point is that both operate under the same framework of law and liberty, based on property ownership and a rejection of the legitimacy of initiation of force. Under both paradigms, the only role of the government is to respond to criminal behavior, as defined under the NAP.

Thus, anarchists (of the propertarian school) such as Murray Rothbard and Hans Hoppe can share the label with minarchists such as Ludwig von Mises and Ron Paul.

Now, it is my contention that point two is far more underappreciated and ignored. By way of reminder, I contend that it is more important to categorize libertarians based on their definition of the libertarian framework than it is to categorize them based on whether or not they believe in a stateless society.

One way of looking at this is more obvious: some “anarchists” despise the institution of private property and the existence capitalists, while both the Rothbardian and the Misesian praises these. But this is only a surface issue. To understand my point at a deeper level, let’s look at a common topic: the case of the Cato Institute.

The Cato Institute is well known in circles associated with the Mises Institute as a “beltway” libertarian think tank that compromises often on “the issues” and unjustifiably focuses on spreading their “libertarian” message by way of embracing various trends of social libertinism. There are many who mistakenly distinguish between groups like the Lew Rockwell Column and the Mises Institute on one side, and Cato and Students for Liberty on the other based on the fact that the former are “anarchist” and the latter are “minarchist.” While largely true, I don’t think this gets to the heart of the matter. For instance, why is it that the former will embrace minarchists like Ron Paul and act hesitantly toward anarchists like David Friedman while the latter will invite David Friedman but almost completely ignore Ron Paul?

The answer to this is that the framework and approach to liberty is completely different in these two camps. The Mises/LRC camp conceives of libertarianism according to the definition outlined above; as a stance on private property rights and a specific formulation of criminality. The Koch-funded groups (including Cato and SFL) conceive of libertarianism as a sort of socially tolerant fiscal conservatism. Moreover, whereas the Rothbardians approach private property as the primary and chief concern of a social order, the Koch gambit approaches private property as a helpful means to promoting “social welfare.” In this sense, the state, according to the Rothbardians is the chief threat to the advancement of civilization while for those in the Koch circles the state is simply and inefficient way of accomplishing goals.

One might interpret the above to be saying that Mises, a utilitarian rather than a natural lawyer in the Rothbardian tradition, should be categorized with Cato. But this isn’t quite what I am getting at. After all, for Mises, despite his rejection of ethically based arguments for libertarianism, held private property to be the most fundamental component for the preservation of western civilization and the state as the institutionalized threat of the private property order. The issue between Cato and Mises isn’t just anarchism vs. minarchism: it is a matter of what the role of government in society is.

Of course, there’s some fascinating cultural differences between these two groups too, that I won’t get into in the present essay, though I have discussed it at length previously. The Mises/LRC groups are far more comfortable with the paleoconservatives, with religion, with social conservatism, and political incorrectness whereas the Koch groups tend to be more comfortable with cultural progressives, tend toward political correctness, are hesitant toward religion and social traditionalists. This too is relevant, I think, and plays into each camp’s conception of the true libertarian spirit. In this light, it is no wonder that Reason Magazine loves Gary “socially liberal” Johnson and not Ron Paul!

I will conclude by including something I have written on this matter before:

In the Autobiographical collection edited by Walter Block called I Chose Liberty, I was pleased to note that Daniel McCarthy, editor at The American Conservative, was given a chapter.  He had a phrase in his piece that stood out to me, and I will provide the entire paragraph for context:

I came to libertarianism in reverse, starting out as a conservative with no strong feelings about libertarianism one way or another, and then actually becoming quite hostile toward it based on what I’d seen. Ayn Rand never has appealed to me, nor has CATO-style managerial minarchism or Virginia Postrel’s techno-utopianism. It’s safe to say that without LRC, the Mises Institute,, and the rest of the Rothbard legacy, I would not ever have become a libertarian, even if I would still believe most of the things that I do. There simply is no substitute—not among libertarians, not among conservatives, not any- where—for what Rothbard and those who follow in his footsteps have done and are doing.

That phrase regarding Cato is striking.  “Cato-style managerial minarchism.”  Beyond the question of the size of government, which libertarians appear to be in agreement on, there is the debate about what, exactly, this “small” government is actually supposed to do.  You see, for Cato, the answer to that is very different than for other libertarians, such as Ron Paul who hold to the principles of some universal ethic to which the government too must adhere.  For Ron Paul, each individual has rights and thus the government’s role is to punish those who breach those rights.  That is strictly it.  But it seems that in reading Cato’s various public policy suggestions, they put their emphasis in other areas.  Rather talking strictly about what the government ought to do morally, they tend to focus on what the government is competent to be in charge of.  McCarthy (who is importantly a minarchist and a paleoconservative) is right to called this “managerial minarchism.”

In a recent blog post at Cato, David Boaz writes about “reasons not to keep on expanding a government that has grown beyond its competence.”  And further down, he states: “Maybe the lesson is that if you want competent government, you should limit it to manageable tasks.”  Now there are plenty of reasons why one shouldn’t really label Cato libertarian, at least not by the same definition that the Mises Institute is libertarian, but beyond that, I think that McCarthy hit the nail on the head, especially after reading posts like that.  Not that there is anything really wrong with Cato’s view based on those two sentences per se, for Ludwig von Mises, himself was famous for showing that the government without the price mechanism cannot calculate and thus is, by its very nature, is not “competent” to offer any services, the debate over the moral justification of its activity notwithstanding.

But the point is that when Cato uses these principles, it shows why they don’t really have any complete objection to war, central banking, the draft, federal income taxation, some social welfarism, some corporate subsidies, etc.  As long as it is small enough to be managed, it is great right?

The problem is that Cato’s idea of “small enough to be managed” is usually far larger than the libertarian should hope for.  Not only that, it is an inherently subjective standard.  The GOP thinks that Barack Obama is incompetent to handle everything but along comes Mitt Romney, who has the business success that shows he has the skills to run the world.

In conclusion, I do think that one doesn’t need to be an anarchist to properly be called a libertarian, nor must one be a minarchist. Moreover, I think that the libertarian world is chiefly split not between minarchist and anarchist, but between those who conceive of the government’s role as only prosecuting crime and those who see the state as an often inefficient tool that can be utilized according to its efficiency in the society.

Thus, when I oppose Cato or the Libertarian Party, it is far too simplistic to say that it is because “I am an anarcho-capitalist” and they are minarchists. Rather, it is because their libertarianism is not my own.


*Monopolist here refers to the entity that uses aggression or threat of aggression to ensure that he is the single provider of a given service in society. For it is entirely possible, under the anarchist scheme that, based on the voluntary decisions of the consumers, there arises on the market only one provider of the prosecution services; the important point is whether this government disallows competition by force.

Reprinted with permission from Reformed Libertarian.