Private, Contractual Methods Are More Efficient and More Just
I'm an anarchist because government tends toward ineptitude and consent is extremely important. If you describe yourself as a libertarian, you probably agree with both of those propositions.
The state is bad at doing things. Quite a lot of things, really. That's a claim most libertarians—and an awful lot of non-libertarians—would find uncontroversial. Everyone agrees governments are frequently annoying (see: the DMV) and often deeply unjust and immoral (see: slavery). These conditions occur because governments are composed of fallible human beings, who want to make a buck/gain the respect of their peers/do the right thing/do the easiest thing/get through the day. They persist because government actors ruthlessly stamp out would-be competitors, using violence and threats of violence, a privilege they reserve for themselves alone.
Which raises the question: Might individuals left to their own devices to act freely within a context of self-ownership, private property, and free markets do better than this messy, immoral, violent morass?
Many people find the next bit in the anarchist sales pitch off-putting—the part where we start throwing around terms like non-aggression principle, polycentric legal orders, agorism, and confiscatory taxation. But it's really a pretty simple exercise: Imagine the ways in which nonstate entities can provide all the goods and services governments currently provide, and consider that maybe they can do it better, more efficiently, and more justly. While I like a good deep dive into the anarchic or quasi-anarchic systems of medieval Iceland or early British common law as much as the next gal, we needn't look to such exotic places to find evidence that a truly voluntary society can work.
Many sectors previously thought to be the proper business of governments alone have given way under pressure from new technologies or business innovations—the space launch industry, mail delivery, dispute resolution, recordkeeping methods up to and including money itself. And, of course, roads. (Many of these functions always had private competition, as libertarians well know, even if conventional wisdom held otherwise.) It is reasonable to anticipate that the list of things private entities can do better than public entities will grow, not shrink. The U.S. government gets bigger and dumber every day, but mercifully the realms just out of reach of state control are getting bigger and better much faster. These include gray and black markets, which flourish on the much-maligned dark web, but also exist barely sub rosa on the ordinary social media and e-commerce sites most of us use daily.
The anarchist seeks to shrink and eventually eliminate the monopoly state as punishment for its moral and practical failings, but we can and should revel in the way it is continually being outmatched and outpaced as well.
What's more, the absence of a government is not synonymous with the absence of order or even rule of law. Most people systematically overlook the ways in which their lives are already ordered by nonstate forces and in which the welfare of others is supported through noncoercive methods. Private legal regimes exist all around us; they govern our dating apps, our homeowners associations, our credit cards, our Twitter streams, our charitable giving, and a whole lot more. Yes, they are imperfect, but they are also more likely to fail when the money stops rolling in due to those imperfections, rather than stealing more of your money to grow ever larger as the state nearly always will.
Each of these examples contains an elaborate system of rules and conventions that the participants accept and follow, and sometimes amend, without government oversight or enforcement. The state lurks in the background, because such is the reality of our current world. But recourse to state courts and police is relatively rare when conflict occurs in these spaces, in part because walking away is almost always a viable option. Sticking around can, in fact, imply consent. And if that's not good enough for you, explicit contracts offer a robust instrument to help resolve disputes.
"Consent of the governed," by contrast, is not actual consent, and to mistake it for consent is to undermine the very definition of the word. If 51 percent of women signed a document saying they liked rough sex, that certainly would not give an individual man permission to push any individual woman up against a wall. Yet this is the essence of representative government. (This example is purposely inflammatory and hyper-personalized, since long habituation has made most people deaf and blind to parallel harms imposed by the state—as in the everyday conduct of the war on drugs, the collection of taxes, and the enforcement of economic regulations.)
Unlike in a market, when the state provides a service, it has the power to criminalize competition from private entities that might be able to do the same thing with less graft, less cronyism, or less collateral damage. This retards innovation in the name of protecting the status quo, a phenomenon most libertarians recognize as an outright evil.
Nonanarchist libertarians often treat the existence of the state as an unfortunate inevitability. They would love, in theory, to privatize law enforcement or at least the roads, but the logistics just seem so tiresome. This always strikes me as peculiar coming from people who will cheerfully sketch out their 20-year, 87-part, 50-state strategy to transition from traditional public schools to charters.
The fact that I wake up each morning, spit on my hands, and mentally hoist a black and yellow flag doesn't actually reveal very much about my practical politics—and there's no reason it should. At the risk of piling on an overly baroque series of adjectives, the most defensible form of libertarianism is incrementalist anarcho-capitalism. Revolutionary anarchism would likely impose large amounts of harm to people and property. Middling minarchism quickly sinks into intuitionist and irrational line drawing: Why should trash pickup be privatized but not policing? But the agorists—an even less well-known varietal of an already-rare hothouse ancap political philosophy—are on to something with their strategy of engaging in black market counter-economic activity to undermine the state without violently overthrowing it.
It may well be, as Robert Nozick suggested, that anarchy is fundamentally unstable, and that it would rapidly and reliably evolve into a form of "minarchism"—a small-government society featuring a monopoly provider of defense and law. But that's neither here nor there. We're not going to achieve true minarchism any time soon, either. And if my anarchy collapses into your minarchy through voluntary interactions, well, that sounds like a happy ending for everyone, doesn't it?
For the nonce, there is no daylight between the policy prescriptions favored by the gradualist anarchist and the minarchist. We should rightly be part of the same libertarian coalition for free minds and free markets. I assure you, the lowest-priority items on my government-smashing to-do list are the elements of the night watchman state that most minarchist libertarians would like to preserve.
But why anyone would hold out hope that the night watchman will turn out to be better or easier to restrain than the jackbooted thugs currently working the day shift is an eternal mystery to me.
In Praise of a State That Does a Few Things Well
To me, the three saddest words in the English language are "taxation is theft."
Over the past few years, that slogan has become a shorthand way of announcing oneself as an anarcho-capitalist. It's also an excellent means of alienating people who don't already agree with you. In my experience, the same folks also usually declare that the non-aggression principle (NAP), which holds that any nondefensive use of force is morally illegitimate, should be the whole of the law. Those of us who merely believe in limited government, rather than no government—such sketchy characters as Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, and Ludwig von Mises—are deemed "fake" libertarians.
Minarchism is the belief that we should have a small government that does a few things well. Exactly what those things are will change over time and circumstance, but the general view is rooted in a long tradition that virtually everyone on the planet already buys into.
Confusing libertarianism with anarchism is no way to build a successful, influential social movement, which is ultimately what I'm after. We want to help make the world more free, more peaceful, and more prosperous by reducing the size, scope, and spending of government and empowering individuals to pursue happiness as they see fit. At worst, "taxation is theft" is a bullet-proof conversation stopper, like wearing an "Ask Me about My Herpes" T-shirt to a swingers club.
At best, it immediately narrows all conversations to boring, tedious, and fundamentally irrelevant discussions about hypotheticals, first principles, and extreme a priori-ism that are light-years removed from anything to do with the world we actually live in. Why bother figuring out what school choice programs should look like? Haven't you heard? TAXATION IS THEFT, and nonvoluntary government institutions are not simply misguided—they're absolute violations of the NAP. If that's true, then conversations about policy, much less libertarian approaches to literature, art, community, religion, and everything else humans do on a daily basis, might as well be planting a flower garden in a concentration camp.
But if libertarianism is not synonymous with anarchism, then what is it, exactly? My position is that it's a pre-political state of mind, a temperament, and an outlook that privileges things such as autonomy, open-mindedness, pluralism, tolerance, innovation, and voluntary cooperation over forced participation in as many parts of life as possible. It's part and parcel of the great shift in thinking that got underway during the Renaissance, Reformation, and Enlightenment (an epoch increasingly known as the Early Modern period). That period generated a consensus about truths that we still hold to be self-evident: All of us are created equal and we've got certain rights that can't be taken away, especially life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Individuals exist before the creation of the state or the church, and the king, the Pope, and the body politic don't have unlimited rights to tell us what to do.
"Forced worship stinks in God's nostrils," the great colonial American religious reformer and defender of secular government Roger Williams once wrote to explain why theocracy was an affront to human dignity. So it is with most aspects of our lives. Libertarians want to increase the spaces where we get to choose (or invent) how to live. This broad set of ideas has obvious, immediate, and long-lasting political effects, but they can't and shouldn't be reduced to a simple slogan or a single rigid form of (non)government.
This is another way of saying that like Walt Whitman's America, libertarianism is vast and contains multitudes (and contradictions). In fact, I think libertarian works better as an adjective than as a noun. You can be a libertarian anarchist, a libertarian centrist, even a libertarian socialist (Noam Chomsky's preferred self-designation). But these are personal preferences, not logical truths or mathematical proofs. They all rest upon an understanding of limited government that proceeds directly from Early Modern beliefs about the sanctity of the individual, which implies limited government.
"Most people overlook the ways in which their lives are already ordered and the welfare of others supported through noncoercive methods."
For these reasons, give me minarchism. Some things will always be subject to political consensus, but let's limit those to the few that are absolutely necessary. That isn't a clear line but a constantly shifting border that will always have to be negotiated. But one clear benefit of small government over anarchy is that it swaps out bull sessions about first principles for a conversation that most of us are already having, which is where and when to draw the boundary of governmental control over us. Everyone—even economic progressives such as Bernie Sanders and social conservatives such as Rick Santorum—believes there are limits to what the state should be allowed to do. That is precisely where libertarians can engage people to the right and left and make real progress toward a better, freer world.
The federal budget is $4 trillion and getting bigger all the time. What say you, Bernie Sanders? You agree with me that the government shouldn't do everything, so where do we cut? I'd start with the biggest items in the budget, such as transfer payments to rich old people in the form of Social Security and Medicare. Why not go after funding for overseas wars and domestic military bases? I think states should end drug prohibition, and that state and local governments should mostly get out of the education business and instead cut checks to the schools that kids and their parents pick (thank you, Milton Friedman, you statist bastard, for coming up with that idea). Better yet, just give those who need help unrestricted cash grants that they can spend how they see fit.
I've known people who needed $200 to fix their car so they could go to work. But there's no welfare for that, so instead they lose their jobs and then get a bunch of highly constrained vouchers—for medicine, for housing, for food. Why not figure out a way to help people keep their jobs rather than become unemployed wards of the state, Rick Santorum? Uber, Lyft, and the ride-sharing revolution have taught us that a whole raft of government regulatory bodies such as taxi commissions aren't necessary to ensure safe and reliable service. Whole Foods certifies the provenance of its produce with a dedication, accuracy, and legal certitude the USDA will never be able to match.
There are demonstration projects everywhere showing that what we thought could only be done by government can in fact be done in all sorts of better ways. They don't lead ineluctably to anarchy, though—just to more freedom, more autonomy, more choice.
To be sure, there's a lot about this vision of libertarianism that is simpatico with anarchy, but it's not dogmatic and tendentious. Duke political scientist Michael Munger makes a useful distinction between what he calls directional libertarians and destinationist libertarians. The latter tend to be anarchists, and their focus is on very specific and absolute outcomes: The only good government is no government. Anything that stops short of that is a mistake. Directional libertarians instead deal in relative terms and ask the question: Given where we are at any moment in time, what policies and mindsets increase the available options for how to live? The late Reason Contributing Editor Thomas Szasz once told me he was against medical marijuana because it simply extended the medical profession's control over more substances. Other libertarians have told me that legalizing pot is not a win because it simply regulates and taxes it like beer, wine, and alcohol.
I loved and admired Szasz, and I get where the ancaps and libertarian edgelords are coming from, but give me a break already. Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice, except when it makes basic conversations about the quality of everyday life essentially impossible.
Libertarian-minded people can choose to be principled and effective, by constantly pushing for more freedom in discussions about public policy and by advocating and living out the general social attitudes that go along with such beliefs—tolerance, pluralism, optimism, skepticism toward public and private concentrations of power, etc. Or we can choose to be principled and annoying as fuck by spending our energy pretending to be anarchists. I know the direction in which I'm walking even if I don't yet know my final destination. See you when I see you, comrades.
Reply: Mangu-Ward to Gillespie
Much of Nick's critique of anarchism seems to boil down to the fact that ancaps are totally not fun at parties—plus their ideas are so unpopular. Which creates an awkward pot-kettle situation, since that's precisely the kind of thing that most people would say about libertarians. And atheists. And vegans. Which are all categories to which Nick belongs, by the by.
Unpopular and untrue are nearly, if not totally, unrelated concepts. Taxation really is theft and war really is murder. None of which is any excuse for bad behavior during conversations over beers.
Political reactionaries, even revolutionaries, come in all ideological flavors. Your ends don't have to be extreme to justify extreme means, or vice versa. I have known plenty of anarchists who are perfectly happy to sit quietly and chat with their socialist buddies about whether anything can be done to tweak the wording of Chicago's asset forfeiture provisions to minimize harm to the city's least well-off. And I've seen shirt-grabbing shouting matches over which candidate should win the Republican primary between people who couldn't fit one thin dime in the gap between their policy goals or aesthetic preferences.
Minarchists and anarcho-capitalists should be bosom buddies, by my lights. But none of that changes the fact that I've found it fiendishly difficult to get a toehold in the slippery slope of minarchism—and not for lack of trying.
I'll say it again: If you think the state is uniquely ill-suited to meet people's needs when it comes to shoes, soup, school, or science—and I think we both do—then I fail to see why you're keen to have the same batch of bunglers be responsible for far more fundamental services like courts, cops, and charity. Especially when the evidence is all around that, given a chance, private mechanisms can provide all of the above more fairly, more cheaply, and more innovatively. When I set out walking, I like to know where I'm headed. But you're welcome to walk with me as long as you like, Nick.
Reply: Gillespie to Mangu-Ward
For starters, I'm an apatheist, not an atheist. Raised Catholic and the recipient of not fewer than five holy sacraments before Ronald Reagan left office, I have simply lost interest over the years in questions of personal faith, even as I respect and admire many believers and the communities, organizations, and traditions they have built over millennia. My veganism, like my libertarianism, is directional and based on plants having fewer calories than meat and dairy products, not on the idea that animals have the same rights as people. It's a default setting, not a rigid commitment. Maybe I'll see you at the seafood buffet.
Similarly, not all taxation is theft, is it? Don't you give consent, however grudgingly, when you choose to stay in a particular jurisdiction or move to a new one? Maybe some forms of taxation are kinda-sorta-like theft, but surely there are important differences worth itemizing and discussing.
Indeed, if taxation is theft, by the time we're old enough to vote we're all sitting on thousands of dollars in stolen property that we should be trying to return to its rightful owners. My reservations about anarchy are not simply that its proponents are often unpopular and usually annoying.
But yes to Katherine's generous offer of walking together in the direction of limited government and lower, fairer taxes. Like the farmer and the rancher, anarchists and minarchists should be friends, at least as long as we agree that neither farming nor ranching should be subsidized by taxpayers.