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Ancapism and Minarchy: Technicalities and Clarification
CJay Engel comment One Comment access_time 7 min read

What follows is an overview discussing the problem of definitions and historical development of the so-called anarcho-capitalism and minarchism split.

Murray Rothbard, who coined the term “anarcho-capitalist,” was convinced that government could be funded and provided for in a way that was consistent with the summation of his political thought; namely, the non-aggression principle. That is, the government could be provided on the market, without taxation. Mises, perhaps the most brilliant sociologists in modern history, was not convinced that government could be funded and provided for in that way.

Mises, in one of his statements against anarchism, wrote the following [when he says Liberalism, of course, he is referring to “Classical Liberalism,” which was the predecessor liberty-movement before the more purist libertarianism of the 20th century.]:

Liberalism is not anarchism, nor has it anything whatsoever to do with anarchism. The liberal understands quite clearly that without resort to compulsion, the existence of society would be endangered and that behind the rules of conduct whose observance is necessary to assure peaceful human cooperation must stand the threat of force if the whole edifice of society is not to be continually at the mercy of any one of its members. One must be in a position to compel the person who will not respect the lives, health, personal freedom, or private property of others to acquiesce in the rules of life in society. This is the function that the liberal doctrine assigns to the state: the protection of property, liberty, and peace.

And yet Rothbard, the first anarcho-capitalist by name, wisely pointed out:

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.

Something is clearly amiss.

Let’s talk definition.

The nature of a definition is the meaning that sits behind the word. Without the meaning, the word is useless. It is the meaning of the word that carries the weight. Thus, we ought not get caught up on words. Mises often talked about the follies of history’s anarchists. Essentially, they were socialists who desired disorder and destruction of the present state of things, who assumed that the private ownership of goods was evil, who taught that man could be perfected once the capitalist system was overcome. The anarchists, in short, were chaotic leftists, who had a profound disdain for private property and the “natural elites,” that is, those who ran businesses and owned property. There was so very much wrong with them.

In fact, as Rothbard, in his early years, pointed out,

we find that none of the proclaimed anarchist groups correspond to the libertarian position, that even the best of them have unrealistic and socialistic elements in their doctrines. Furthermore, we find that all of the current anarchists are irrational collectivists, and therefore at opposite poles from our position. We must therefore conclude that we are not anarchists, and that those who call us anarchists are not on firm etymological ground, and are being completely unhistorical.

This “anarchism” is neither economically practical nor is it ethically praiseworthy.

Why, then, do so many modern libertarians -most notably of the Rothbardian strain- consider themselves as “anarcho-capitalists?” Well, interestingly, Rothbard had set out to articulate the fact that he saw a distinction between the State as “the organization of robbery systematized and writ large” and government, which was the function in society of rendering justice to criminals.  The state was an entity, government was a role, or function. In other words, at a very basic level, the state itself seemed to stand in contradiction with the professed aims of government! Rothbard’s goal was to come up with a phrase to express the fact that he was both against the state, but also for private property, which necessitates protection of that property and punishment against those who aggress against that property (criminals). His chosen phrase was “anarcho-capitalism” (or “ancap” for short). Against the state, but for private property/government services.

In due time, people simply began to take the short route and just say “anarchist.” What they meant, however, was not the leftism that Mises so valiantly opposed, but their opposition to the monopoly institution of legalized crime.

In other words, they use anarchism in a way that most people, upon hearing the word, would never guess its meaning. In other words, the word, if not explained can be unhelpful and misleading. Two key points come from this: 1) if you consider yourself an ancap, I suggest not being dogmatic about the phrase in every situation. Try using “Propertarian.” 2) if you consider yourself a libertarian but don’t go as far as Rothbard did, don’t assume that the ancaps you are talking with are using “anarchism” in its historical use of the term— as the infamous and anti-Rothbardian Kyle Wagner tends to do.

Now then, what is “ideal?” Should the libertarian be for anarcho-capitalism (stateless society, with government services provided on the market) or minarchy (a society with a minimal state, restricted only to the enforcement of property rights)? Let me first say this: the minarchist libertarian, such as Ron Paul and Ludwig von Mises, has as much right to the term “libertarian” as the anarcho-capitalist such as Murray Rothbard and Hans-Hermann Hoppe. The reason we say this, besides their historical affinity is because I think the debate is actually one of definitional technicality. I elaborate on this here.

Stephen Kinsella, who is perhaps more aware of this definitional technicality than many others in both camps, once stated:

So when you talk about government, the question is not how we classify it or what the best words are for state, government, etc., semantically: but rather: the question is: does the government that minarchists favor engage in institutionalized aggression, or not? If not, it’s not a state, and it’s not unlibertarian. If it does, it’s merely a type of state.

Now the [anarcho-capitalists] believe you can have private institutions provide law, justice, defense, without necessarily engaging in systematic and institutionalized aggression that is, without being a state. Whether you want to call such institutions government or not seems to me to be purely semantic, [especially] if we grant there is a distinction between state and government. The remaining question is simply what type of government the minarchists favor: do they favor a government that has the authority to commit institutionalized aggression, or not? If they do, then they are pro-state, since such a government is a state. If they do not, they are [anarcho-capitalists], it seems to me, since private, non-state, non-aggressive institutions of law, justice, and defense is exactly what we [anarcho-capitalists] favor.

You see, the debate is not about government vs. no government. The debate is more nuanced than that. The question is actually broken up into two parts, based on the two things that actually define the essence of the state. First, is it better (more morally consistent) for the institutions of government to be funded via voluntary fees and/or service charges, or via compulsory taxation?

This isn’t about what is “practical.” Political theory –ethics– is not built on utilitarian grounds. It’s a simple theoretical question. Yes, lower taxes are better, sure we can pay our taxes to avoid the state’s wrath. Those are different discussions. What we are asking is whether governments (human beings) should, ideally, take the money needed to operate by compulsion or not.

Second, does the government have the right to declare itself the only institution of its kind that is allowed in society? That is, does the government have the right to sue competitors and drive them, by aggression, out of business? Or are other governing institutions allowed to compete and service their clients? Ancaps would say, ideally, governments should take voluntary payments and also that they do not have the right to outlaw competitors. Minarchists disagree.

That’s the difference, precisely because those are the two things which set the State apart from every other (legal) organization.

Creator and Editor of Austro Libertarian. Lives in Northern CA, runs several businesses, spends time with his family, and reads as much economics and political theory as possible.