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Anarchism, Minarchism, and the Libertarian Label

"I endorse Austro Libertarian Magazine 100%" —Tom Woods

Anarchism, Minarchism, and the Libertarian Label

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It is my intention for this article that I clarify for future reference the relationship between “anarchism” in the Rothbardian tradition and minarchism and their association with the libertarian label. This essay is built on the precision of definitions and is framed as a taxonomic essay, meant to convince those who already use the three phrases to arrange their relationship with each other in the way that I do.

Let me start here with an overview of the situation 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 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.

On Governance vs. State

Implied in this summary is a distinction between government, as a role in society; and the state, as an entity which has monopolized the role. There is a necessary and logical distinction between the need that men, in their pursuit of the protection and enforcement of property rights, have for an agency to adjudicate conflict and prosecute violators of property on one hand, and a particular entity that establishes itself as having the monopoly on the provision of the stated need.

If I were to summarize the distinction between the role of government and the institution of the State, I would follow the tradition of Franz Oppenheimer, Albert Nock, and more recently by Stephen Kinsella in noting that government rightly acts coercively in upholding justice in response to a crime; and the State wrongly acts coercively to systematically contradict justice and act criminally. When Augustine observed that, “Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms,” he was contributing to the logical necessity of dividing between coercive bodies which pursue justice and coercive bodies which are inherently at odds with justice. For how can two bodies which act in opposite ways both be considered substantially the same?

I might here remind the reader that the common refrain that libertarianism prohibits all possible coercive activity between men, is misleading. As Murray Rothbard stated:

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.

Thus, the role of a non-state government is to be an agency to which men can outsource, so to speak, the legally permitted role of coercing the criminal. It is precisely when this agency monopolizes its activities (forcibly preventing competitors from rising) and forces the payment for its services (taxation), that it becomes a state and contradicts the very role itself. This is the difference between a government and a state. I have elaborated, leveraging Hermann Hoppe, on all this at length in this essay.

Anarchism vs. Minarchism

Without here reflecting on the historical uniqueness of anarchism being the proper label for a non-state, capitalistic and property-based order, we can now see the difference between the anarchistic and minarchistic arrangement is as stated above: the anarchist in the anarcho-capitalist tradition holds that it is the logical implication of the non-aggression principle that the state is an unethical and therefore non-libertarian institution.

For the anarchist in the Rothbardian tradition, it is technically beside the point whether or not a non-state society is “practical” or achievable. And as a personal aside, I believe it practical (it can work), but I doubt it will actually ever be achieved, due to the inability for most men to reason properly and therefore their ever-attachment to the state.

The minarchist, perhaps because practicality takes precedence over the ethics of the matter, advocates a state that is relegated to the simple function of protection of property rights. The logical paradox of a taxing property-rights protector notwithstanding, one who limits the role of the state to this exact function is a minarchist– an advocate of the minimal state. Let me here anticipate the definition of libertarianism that will come below by denying many who consider themselves “limited government” to be minarchists, technically speaking. If minarchism is the position that the only role of the state is the protection of property rights, then those who support tax funded: education, healthcare provision, fire departments, post offices, or anything else are therefore outside the strict definition of a true minarchist.

There are so many who claim to not be anarchists as an impulse reaction to criticism of their public-services advocacy, instead settling on minarchism as their comfort point. But minarchism, under our definition, is the view that the only role of the state is one of protection and enforcement of property rights.

To Whom Should the Libertarian Label Be Applied?

With that as the foundation, let us move to the content of the problem of the libertarian label. 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 or all members of the minarchists. 

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. Again, 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 (state); while for the anarchists, such an enforcement role is to be taken up by a voluntarily-funded and non-monopolist governance agency.

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.

To those minarchists and limited government folks who deny that anarchists are [or can be, depending on the type and definition of anarchism] libertarians, we answer that these anarchists actually take the definition libertarian to it’s logical conclusion.

To those anarchists who dismiss minarchists as non-libertarian due to their acceptance of a small state, we answer that this confusedly and unhelpfully ignores both historical development (Rothbardianism is a brand new “tradition”) and the contributions of people like Ron Paul and Ludwig von Mises.

Libertarianism therefore is defined above and sits as an umbrella term over minarchists (true minarchists!) and anarcho-capitalists. 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.

The More Important Libertarian Distinction

Now, it is my contention that point two is far more under appreciated 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, consider the wars and heightened tensions between people and groups like the Mises Institute, Lew Rockwell, and Tom Woods on one side, and Steve Horwitz, Nick Sarwark, Cato, and Reason Magazine on the other. There are many who mistakenly distinguish between the groups based on the fact that the former are “anarchist” and the latter are “minarchist.” While perhaps there is some grain of truth to this from time to time, 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 an ethical stance on private property rights and a specific formulation of criminality. Whereas the more popular and mainstream libertarianism associated with the Libertarian Party and libertarians of the Beltway give off a flavor of a sort of socially tolerant (and boy are they ever loud about this!) fiscal conservatism.

Since libertarianism is a thin doctrine that has strictly to do with the use of force in society, this means that libertarianism must be coupled with other commitments (which are, to be clear, outside the boundaries of libertarianism qua libertarianism) in order to have a more holistic view of the world in which we live. One of the things that separates and distinguishes the approach of AustroLibertarian.com is that we are interested in the defense of traditional western civilization; even though the cultural battle may very well have already been lost. But as Jeff Deist labels them, the Zeitegeist libertarians are a different type of libertarian, with different commitments and ends than our own.

We aren’t interested in making the world more socially tolerant or participating in the progressive cultural shenanigans, swooning over “inclusivity” or “diversity” as an end in themselves. We don’t want merely to have libertarianism be represented as a defense of voluntary means toward socially progressivist ends. Rather, alongside our ethically-based definition of libertarianism, we are biased toward a sort of cultural rightism that looks fondly on the habits, norms, aesthetics, and demeanors of an older western cultural that seems to be fading away under the weight of an ugly cultural Leftism writ large.

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CJay Engel

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.

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