Viewpoint: On the Growth of 'States'


Many argue for anarcho-capitalism by saying that exclusive jurisdiction in a given geographical area constitutes a coercive monopoly. Indeed, governments claim exclusive jurisdiction in a given geographical area. Whether this claim could ever be justified is up in the air, although anarcho-capitalists have already decided the answer to that question. They assert that such jurisdiction must be immoral, i.e., coercively established, forced on those who come under such jurisdiction.

The history of political philosophy abounds with attempts to provide justification for the claim at issue. Most of them are failures, invoking artificial grounds, rationalizations, highly spurious theories of states, etc. One favorite of the tradition closest to supporting a free society is the contract theory of state, making its appearance in many colors (via Hobbes, Locke, et al.). The essence of the contract theory is that people must have united by way of voluntary consent to form a state so as to preserve their natural rights, even if this in turn led to their losing them "in the law," somehow.

What is called limited government—misnamed because "limited" would be redundant if used with another profession, say "limited chemistry," "limited medicine," etc.—has had doubtful philosophic support in political theory. The contract theory, usually a transcendental hypothesis (i.e., it must have happened that way, barring only the irrationality of those involved), fails because it is plainly false that any contract between people and their legal agents ever occurred. Also, contracts presuppose law, so at best we can hypothesize some kind of agreement. But then the point of a contract is lost. Still, that is a topic to be dealt with elsewhere. For now let us look at the alternative offered by anarcho-capitalists.

Their view is not strictly speaking anarchical. Anarchy does not just reject government. It opposes any system where self-rule is relinquished in favor of institutionalized, community centered rule, even if the community has only one member aside from the governor/rule-enforcer. This because potentially any rule-enforcer (not "ruler" for that allows for arbitrariness in making rules) is one with the authority to enforce rules community wide. In anarcho-capitalist terms, any defense agency could have more than one subscriber, and any court could have the same.

Anarcho-capitalism renounces extreme anarchism in favor of mitigated anarchism: people have the natural right to delegate their efforts at self-defense to hirelings, and to delegate their authority of judgment to courts, etc. Self-rule is mingled with self-delegated rule.

The picture we get from this is of a geographical area inhabited by people who may hire guards and arbiters, rely on their own power of protection and preservation, quit one hired agent and join another, even have two or more unrelated agents hired to do different jobs, etc., etc. The adherence to natural or human rights requires here that some "contract" ensue between employer and employee, mostly of a simple variety, involving not much more than does hiring a plumber.

Let us accept this rather vague version of the situation and turn to the point of the present discussion. If it is each person's right to select good protection for himself and his property, it is reasonable to think that some would want the best currently available protection. E.g., in a small community a small-time guard (sheriff?) and arbiter (judge?) are doing some business, but the people hear that in a neighboring place business is done much better. No big thing for a while. But then a complicated crime—violation of someone's rights—occurs. The local agents simply are not equipped to deal with it: they cannot afford the tools needed to do justice to the case. And tools are involved in this mission—so far those who see justice in economic terms alone have a point.

The folk around the place (town, village, county) are not satisfied with the competence of rule (law) enforcement, the administration of justice. So they decide to get annexed, to fire their agents and hire the ones in that neighboring community. This annexation may be done right (and wrong as well). The full consent of those involved may lead to it. Some who resist may be threatened with boycotts unless they acquiesce, so they change their minds—nothing wrong with this good market process. Others may resist and secede. So annexation is not inherently immoral. Unfortunately today it is more roughly done than the above description of how it ought to be done.

Still, admitting that these things do not happen with perfect manifestation of virtue and natural law, it need not violate these either. The seeds of a natural monopoly emerge and we get a sensible account of how governments grow out of an anarcho-capitalist setting. Perhaps the concept anarcho-capitalism is no longer applicable to the situation, if it ever was. The title of this piece, "On the Growth of States," is a bit offensive, charging the anarcho-capitalist with implicit statism. "State" generally refers to a system that is conceived as monolithic and there is nothing inherently monolithic about the above progression. But "state" is often used to refer to an organized community of human beings with a system of administration of justice, leaving open the details. It is in this sense that the concept is used in the title, state qua polis.

Many have argued that libertarian thought does not exclude the possibility and moral justifiability of government. Anarcho-capitalists have said they do not buy this. It seems that from the above they must accept that an agency of law-enforcement with exclusive jurisdiction within a given geographical area is consistent with their point of view—which means it is no different from the position taken by those who argue that some form of government is morally justifiable.

Tibor Machan teaches philosophy at the State University College, Fredonia, NY, and is Senior Editor of REASON. Dr. Machan's viewpoint appears in this column every third month, alternating with the viewpoints of Murray Rothbard and David Brudnoy.