Dwarfing the State


I fantasize what the civic society should look like.

Libertarians, at a certain level, see liberal government as the community of peaceful people who would like to be left alone but who also believe that cooperation or agreement will diminish the cost of self-defense against criminals and foreign invaders, the coining of money, and possibly the maintenance of the commons such as roads, bridges, lighthouses and a few others.

These believers in a "grand narrative called government" (using postmodern lingo) are the community of the lawful. Part of enjoying this community is paying taxes in lieu of the perhaps greater cost of buying these services individually.

Those who do not fit into the community of the lawful are outlaws and can be punished or killed if they offend this community. Laws, in this narrative, are formulations that merely mirror the lived lives of the governed, and "legislators" (from the Latin, meaning "bearers of laws") do not make laws, but rather find them in the practices of the peace-loving community.

Note that this civic society encompasses all peaceful citizens in an area or realm of agreement. The key libertarian insight is that they will all agree to only a few things, and that this limits what the government can claim to span. But even this dwarfed government still has to hire officials to formulate and administer laws, and judges to mediate disputes. We in Western societies have adopted "democracy" (really we have a republic) as the mechanism for selecting these administrators, legislators, and judges.

The democratic selection of candidates does not confer on legislators any power to invent new laws, regulations, taxes, impositions, and troubles for the community of the peaceful, if these laws are not already part of the daily practices of the governed. The government should know no more about the citizens than is necessary to collect taxes.

A self-selected portion of the peace-loving citizens can of course voluntarily choose to burden themselves with compulsory healthcare, or a moral code forbidding abortion or abuse of drugs; it can enforce these burdens on consenting adults in the subgroup; but this does not obligate the entire community of peaceful citizens.

We classical liberals disagree with liberals and conservatives about the provenance of what the democratic adventure can claim to do for us. Peace-loving citizens rely on a neutral government to compel members to remit taxes to pay for coinage, a police force, and so on. Other common functions, such as streets, a postal system, and parks can be provided by a government and paid for by fees levied on users, if that be the democratically determined wish; alternatively, they can be provided by profit-making entities. (Streets are merely slits in an ocean of developed private land that landowners need for access. Landlocked land is famously worthless.) In this libertarian cosmos politicking among the peaceful is unnecessary.

The idea and purpose of government, however, have been perverted because significant minorities want help for their special projects, such as wars on concepts (drugs, poverty), foreign misadventures (Iraq), regulations of business, forced contributions for retirement . . . a nearly endless list. Mainstream politicians, anxious to gain election, use their power to appeal to these special constituencies.

As generally peaceful citizens encountered laws and impositions that were foreign to their customs, they realized that they had to shoulder burdens from which they didn’t profit, and more critically, that they too could live out some of their private fantasies if they invested in politics. Government, thus perverted, no longer cultivated agreement among the peaceful. Rather it fostered strife. The community of peace burned itself out in the zero-sum game of politics. Government thus perverted no longer equaled agreement among the peaceful.

In the real world, of course, the libertarian vision of a civic society never really existed, but its opposite, which was articulated by Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan, has prevailed for millennia. Hobbes deemed life lived in the “state of nature” to be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” He advocated a sovereign authority to control civil, military, judicial, and ecclesiastical power. For Hobbes, civil society was one in which all individuals had to cede some of their rights to gain protection. In practice, this perpetuated feudalism, with its kings, nobility, privileges, arbitrary laws with capricious enforcement, endless politicking, and discord, for another century.

In 1776, our Declaration of Independence shone a light on this Hobbesian creation and proclaimed a departure. The American Revolution and the subsequent Constitution crafted a restrained government in which the individual was sovereign. “Common law” evolved in courtrooms. Posses supported enforcement of criminal laws. Usual practices among businessmen were formulated in the Uniform Commercial Codes. Producers kept what they created.

However, within a few generations groups and individuals started demanding special favors and rewarded collaborating politicians at the expense of the many. They wrote laws that went beyond what everyone would have agreed to. Privileges, licensing, regulations, foreign entanglements, draconian punishments for synthetic crimes, taxes, programs, disinformation, bullets, breadlines, bribes, and bosses proliferated.

The remaining dwindling majority discovered that it was more profitable to squabble over its fair share of a fixed pie rather than work to increase its own wealth, and have it plundered. Peaceful society, tranquility lost, fragmented into hostile camps of winners and losers, a crapshoot of who was in the majority of the moment. Lawful society had arced back to Hobbes’s form of the feudal social contract and paradoxically a “war of all against all.”

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Jon Harrison

Well, I agree with Haas, and I think his essay is well thought out and well written. The anarchists among us are obviously entitled to their views, but being a minority of a minority, they regrettably tend to vituperation when presenting their views.

I had to consult "Leviathan" for the first time in decades recently, and I was surprised to find that Hobbes advocated that the state take over from private charity in preventing individual want. He considered private charity unreliable. I had entirely forgotten the passage. I'm afraid there's something to be said for his argument. Surely, for example, the British government should have done something during the 19th century potato famine in Ireland. I'm not Irish and I don't know Irish history well, but didn't the English (I'm of English descent) basically allow several million people to starve? Or have I got it wrong? On a more benign level, have you ever travelled on a privately maintained road? I've lived in two communities that contained private roads (not driveways), and the state of repair in both cases was absolutely terrible. Some things are best done by government -- not many things, but some.

Jim Henshaw

Jon: "I'm not Irish and I don't know Irish history well, but didn't the English (I'm of English descent) basically allow several million people to starve? Or have I got it wrong?"

Well, I'm part Irish.

So, you're arguing against anarchism by pointing out how a government allegedly "let" several million people starve, and then implying that an more expansive government would have produced better results?

No one "let" the Great Potato Famine happen. It occurred because potatoes produced by far the most calories of any crop grown on those soils, resulting in a population explosion and a massive loss of dietary balance right before that crop got the blight and suddenly potatoes produced the least amount of calories of any crop in the islands.

But even that would not have been as disastrous if the country was industrialized and wealthy like Britain and thus had the money to import food -- that is, if more laissez-faire free markets had led to investment and development and more foreign trade with citizens outside the country. But, instead the land was full of dirt-poor farmers, due to the population boom, barely subsisting on tiny plots of land with something approaching a monoculture of a crop with little genetic diversity.

re this: "Some things are best done by government -- not many things, but some."

It wasn't particularly realistic to expect the British government to have much incentive to step in and drain huge amounts of taxes from largely Protestant and Anglo-Saxon citizens to finance relief efforts for a largely Catholic and Celtic population on a different island, at a time when those differences mattered greatly. The British government had essentially an occupational army in a conquered land guarding the property of largely absentee landlords in England siphoning off rents.

If your point is that we should rely on government to take over private charity, this disaster was a strong argument against such a takeover. Blaming the British government for not doing enough during the famine would make about as much sense as blaming the French or American governments for not doing enough during the famine. No one with any grasp of the history here could convincingly argue that famine relief was something that was actually "best done" by the government. Incentives matter, and the British government did not have the incentives to effectively alleviate much of the suffering that occurred.

To put it bluntly: if you had a time machine and could go back to Ireland before, during, and after the famine, and asked a random sampling of the peasantry if things would have been better if only the British government was even more powerful in Ireland, how do you think those peasants would have responded to this notion that what they REALLY needed was an even more powerful oppressor ruling a conquered country?

I'm guessing either incredulous stares or bitter, sarcastic laughter would have met this proposal.

Re this: "On a more benign level, have you ever travelled on a privately maintained road?"

The finest, best maintained roads on Oahu, where I live, are privately owned by the Mormon church in Laie, and in the several gated communities dotting the island. The public roads elsewhere are not something that anyone not employed by the goverment would likely characterize as being "best done".

Anonymous Liberal

I stopped reading when I got to "[t]he government should know no more about the citizens than is necessary to collect taxes." Unfortunately, I was already feeling sick.

So, let's review something important here. Taxation is a form of extortion. (To write "theft" is much too bland to convey the essence of taxation.) Thus, your statement, properly interpreted, means this:

"The government should know no more about the citizens than is necessary to extort wealth."

So, is there anything else we should discuss about your "community of peaceful people"? How about a rebuttal to a likely objection? First the objection:

"But government needs wealth to perform its functions and to provide its services."

Now, the rebuttal: If you think government needs to perform some function, you are free to support it with your own wealth,...or your own labor...should you happen to be arrested, prosecuted, and convicted of tax evasion. After all, you're not going to let people withhold facts about their wealth or to refuse to pay, now are you? (Pls see also the 13th Amendment. The key word is "except".)

"I fantasize what the civic society should look like."

You needn't do so. You already have it in the "area or realm" that surrounds you.

Minarchism is incoherent.


Then you go found your land of anarchism, while the rest of us volunteer our presence and agreement to taxation under the threat of punishment.

Minarchism is not incoherent.

Jim Henshaw

re this: "Peace-loving citizens rely on a neutral government to compel members to remit taxes to pay for coinage, a police force, and so on."

Actually, some peace-loving citizens regard such theft of taxes, under threat of unpleasant things being done by people toting guns to those who don't submit to this predation, as an initiation of force and the antithesis of peaceful behavior.

Such anarchist libertarians feel that all necessary functions of society can be done on a voluntary basis, and that allowing this minimum of coercion you speak of is the first step toward greater coercions, by stipulating to the legitimacy of violence and statism, albeit at initially lower levels.


This amounts to a 'free market' in the use of force - and competition in this market would not be peace-loving.

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