« Saturday Kid Blogging | Main | Mostly Harmless »

March 07, 2004


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference The Withering Away of the State:

» Fool Me Two Hundred Million Times from Catallarchy.net
Is it better to believe soothing falsehoods or truths that make you uncomfortable? The answer to this simple question lies at the heart of much of the human struggle. I choose the former; many people do not. I would rather... [Read More]

» On Utopia and Skepticism from Catallarchy.net
The word 'utopian' has been used in the blogosphere quite a bit recently. Like Randy Barnett, I am surprised at the intensity of the reaction to the original Reason piece in most parts. From what I can tell, "utopian" has... [Read More]

» Defending the Anarcho-Capitalists from Deinonychus antirrhopus
Well not that they actually need defending as many of them are quite capable of providing the counter argument to this dreck. This part of that condescending article, Anarcho-libertarians are fruitcakes, though, and many of the things they believe seem... [Read More]


Steve Snyder

The libertarians also face a dilemma, or a reductio ad absurdum. Who decides how to privatize? The government!
Now, the more hardcore (read: "nutbar") among the libertarian set might call for referenda on what operations to privatize, minimum bids, etc., but that just ain't gonna work. And the other alternative is the Clints or the Eastern Congolese actually knocking at the door of Federal Agency XYZ and saying "hasta la vista, baby."

Micha Ghertner


I consider myself an anarchist libertarian, yet, unsurprisingly, I don't consider myself a fruitcake. Now there certainly are many anarchist fruitcakes, as radical political positions tend to attract fruitcakes like... well, like fruitcakes attract flies.

But before rejecting all of us as completely nuts, I would suggest people read what we actually have to say in defense of our positions. Randy Barnett and David Friedman are a damn good place to start.

Others include Bruce Benson and Bryan Caplan. Caplan's Anarchist Theory FAQ is arguably the best introduction to anarcho-capitalism available online.

Belle Waring

OK, sure, Micha. I'll take you up on it. I have to admit that from what I've read from Barnett already, he does strike me as moderately studded with fruits and nuts, but it wouldn't be fair to judge people on the basis of short throw-away pieces, and so...

PS Sorry for calling you a fruitcake, then. I mean it in the nicest possible way.

Andrew Lawrence

Why judge political ideologies based on their visions of utopia? In a society with competing political ideologies, you're unlikely to reach any one ideology's end game. I like to think of them as vectors that can be applied to the current system in the hopes of nudging it in a better direction. In that sense, I think libertarian philosophy has much to offer.

Michael Duff

Andrew makes a great point up there. Why don't we consider all the ideologies in terms of their end game?

If we consider our Republican and Democratic parties as watered-down representations of more radical philosophies, they become just a ludicrous as the libertarian version.

I hate to see all libertarians judged in terms of the anarchists.

If you want to see what mainstream libertarians think about stuff, judge them in terms of the Cato Institute. The Cato guys may be radical, but at least their proposals start on planet Earth.

Micha Ghertner

Belle, you're killing me with kindness. I don't take it personally when people call me loony for being an anarchist - it goes with the territory.

I am a little disappointed when people dismiss anarchist arguments without taking them seriously enough to even bother responding, but I can understand why they don't, since we all have a limited amount of time and we can't spend all day refuting the deranged theories of every online crank.

It's just that, in my experience, and I'm obviously biased, Barnett and Friedman represent the serious side of anarchism. I'm genuinly curious why other people find Barnett and Friedman nuts, apart from their obviously radical positions. If nothing else, I want to check to see if my own personal biases are not blinding me from seeing a very obvious flaw in their writings.

And Andrew's "vector" metaphor is a good one, but not really useful for this particular debate. Epstein, Barnett and Friedman all agree about which direction the vector should be pointing; they just disagree over the endpoint. Of course, since we are so far away from the endpoint, the practical difference between their two positions is negligible. Which is why anarchist libertarians and minarchist libertarians generally get along very well. And all the anarchist libertarians I have ever read or been exposed to did not advocate overnight revolution, but would be better described as "fabian" anarchist libertarians. Take it each small step at a time, see what works and see what doesn't work. This is another reason why the difference between the two kinds of libertarians is not that large. Indeed, I wouldn't be all that surprised if a few anarchist libertarians happen to be working for Cato as we speak (a few names come to mind).


In our new world order we won't call it a government cause that's a bad word - we'll call it a private right-enforcement organization.

Rich Puchalsky

If you want to pay enough attention to David Friedman to critique him seriously, there is a special set of critiques of his work at


In general, one shouldn't assume that because some libertarian ideas are out of the mainstream, that no one has put thought into refuting them. Also, give Friedman *some* credit for seriousness -- he has indeed thought of the objection that private rights enforcement organizations will be bad, and though his answer to that may not be good, he does have one.

Timothy Burke

People who make a selling point of their end game deserve to be judged on it. The kind of libertarianism that Belle's talking about (not minarchist) is almost invariably end-game focused, and asserts that every step in between is justified in terms of the end-game utopia.

If a libertarian doesn't care much for the end-game and just wants to be judged on the rationality of particular state-reduction plans, then they're just minarchist utilitarians. Like Belle, I'm perfectly fine with that, and find a goodly amount of it appealing. We can talk about any given idea of that sort on its merits. I actually think that moderate libertarianism has enormous virtues and is one of the most quintessentially American political styles I can think of.

But once utopia swims into view, then the utopians have to be able to defend both the idealized picture they're sketching and the actually existing examples that seem to conform to that utopia--not just the Wild West and Russia, as I'd add some parts of the West African coast in the 18th Century, where states held minimal sway and everything, including human beings, could be traded for. Utopian libertarians usually have the same style of whistling past that graveyard that socialists had (still have) of explaining away "actually existing socialisms" as something else than the utopia they had in mind.

As do utopians in general. Belle is basically confirming for me that all utopianisms--communism, anarcho-libertarianism, "deep ecology" environmentalism--are morally and politically dangerous in some fashion: they will always ignore ominous precedents that contradict their visions. And if they get their way, the path to their future is always paved in blood and torture.

Micha Ghertner


I completely agree with you that anarcho-capitalists should not shy away from their end game. Indeed, they are defined by their end game.

But I think you may be attacking a straw man here. The only libertarians I have heard complaining about being judged by the end-game are the minarchists, who don't share the same end-game as their anarchist counterparts.

I don't think its entirely fair to characterize the anarcho-capitalist end-game as a "utopia," as anarcho-capitalists tend to explicitly reject any utopian view of society. The Randy Barnetts and the David Friedmans of the world are more than willing to acknowledge the potential flaws and imperfections of their desired end-game; the end-game of anarchism, despite these flaws, is only desirable to them because the imperfections of the alternatives are even worse. This is definitely not a perfect vision of society, but a least-bad approach.

Also, your last sentence couldn't be more wrong: no libertarian I have ever met or read has advocated violating rights as a means to achieving desireable political ends. The very difference that separates libertarians from socialists is the reason why this particular criticism is absurd. This is not to say that other criticisms are not valid--perhaps anarchism would be so unstable that a vicious tyrant would rise to power, and insofar as this was a direct and inevitable result of anarchism, the moral blame must rest on the anarchists (as well as on the tyrant himself). But that is a different criticism then the claim that because anarcho-capitalism is a radical political ideology, libertarians will justify the unjustifiable in their path to achieve their desired goals, in the way that radical socialists have done. There can be no "guilt by association" in that regard.

Timothy Burke

Micha: At least some anarcho-libertarians propose an indifference to some classes of rights-violations on the way to an end-state (here I reference what has always struck me as an odd indifference to collective, institutional or social forms of illiberal power originating from non-state entities), but more importantly, are indifferent to the rights-violations that I take to be endemic (not merely possible) to the desired end state of anarcho-libertarians. The difference here, then, might be that anarcho-libertarians save the blood-spilling and torture for the end-state, rather than accounting them as the necessary toll to be paid on the road to utopia. That's a difference to me that makes no difference. That Barnett and Friedman refuse to call this end-state utopia is also a mere nicety, if it is viewed systematically in every respect as more desirable than the present dispensation, and thus the solitary legitimate goal of the political in the here and now. That's as close to utopia as makes no difference: it discards evaluating every choice as it comes to you, with no teleological presumption, in favor of keeping eyes on a distant prize and evaluating every choice in terms of its correspondence with that shiny new era.



No communist ever advocated sacrificing the greatest good for the greatest number in the long run. But, plausibly, it came to that. So the fact that no libertarian advocates violating rights is not a very convincing argument for why this sort of utopianism enjoys an advantage over the communist variety. Road to hell paved with good intentions, all that. There are many roads, but if you think it comes to the same in the end, it doesn't make a difference. (And I realize you say you are not a utopian, but I have to agree with Timothy that this seems to be a terminological nicety. Suppose communist rhetoric were tailored a little. Instead of claiming that the communist end state would be a workers' paradise, it was only claimed that it would be clearly better than the alternatives. I think this is still dangerously utopian, don't you?)


By the way, there seems to be a Leap Year Bug in the date stamp. It's March 7, isn't it? (well, it is now. Sunday. Greek General Election day.)

There may be a problem with definitions here. A situation in which vigilante groups are the law is clearly not "anarchy", except in the sense of lack of a *state* law-enforcement operation.

The question is, is the contract- and self-defence-based "anarchy" contemplated by libertarians *stable* against the development of a force against which an individual cannot defend him or herself? History suggests that greater powers will not omit to impose themselves on lesser ones, if there is advantage to be had thereby.

Suppose everyone individually has equal fighting power. Then, if someone can persuade X people to act together, they can exert power over every individual and every other collection of Y people, for Y less than X. Eventually there may exist a collection Z such that no-one can prevail over Z: Z is a power in the land. In many circumstances Z is a large proportion of the entire country. If we adjust for the unequal distribution of fighting power, Z is usually the state.

The process of aggregation of power must stop, however, when the benefit of exercising power is outweighed by the costs. This suggests that the way to maintain Z very small (which is presumably what libertarians prefer) one must have really *devastating* and *effective* self-defences. One gun isn't going to cut it. It's hard to see what kind of self-defence can really work.

You require an asymmetric kind of situation where the bad consequences of X trying to exert power over one individual *far* outweigh any benefit the X might obtain.

If the individual had a panic button which could detonate a proportionate number of lethal, precisely-targeted weapons at a place of his or her choosing, that might do it. As I said, Pop's rifle doesn't fit this specification. And of course, the X people would have the buttons too. In case the individual was squeamish about the lethal weapons, there would be the option of various other non-lethal incapacitating agents.

A stable anarchy through mutually assured destruction? Could be.

Micha Ghertner


Before I accept your claim that some anarcho-capitalists are indifferent to rights-violations even as a means to a desirable goal, I would have to see some evidence. I would find such an indifference quite puzzling, as it would contradict nearly everything that libertarians are all about. If anything, modern libertarianism is a response to the kind of grand societal engineering that has led to so much death and destruction in recent years.

That Barnett and Friedman refuse to call this end-state utopia is also a mere nicety, if it is viewed systematically in every respect as more desirable than the present dispensation.

But it is clearly not viewed in every respect as more desirable than the present state of affairs. This belies an extreme lack of familiarity with Barnett and Friedman's writings, which exude an ever present sense of skepticism, even aimed at themselves. To wit, Barnett's short piece is titled "The Lesser Evil: Sometimes the cure is worse than the disease." Clearly, he doesn't see his solution as perfect or systematically superior. Other statements by Barnett which exhibit skepticism, not absolute confidence in his position:

"Authorizing force in defense of individual rights is a necessary evil to address the problem of compliance when persons put their own interests ahead of respect for the rights of others -- rights that are themselves necessary, on consequentialist grounds, to solve the pervasive problems of knowledge and interest. Caution should be our guide in pursuit of better consequences than properly defined individual rights provide."

"...On this, I have always had my doubts."

"...I am not sure anyone can prove that these alternatives to takings and taxation will definitely increase aggregate social welfare. But I am certain no one can prove the opposite either."

"...Epstein is convinced. I am not. I would prefer to jump off that bridge if and when we ever come to it, and only after the alternatives are thoroughly explored."

Friedman also stresses skepticism over confidence:

"Epstein hopes to prevent this outcome by better institutional design. Perhaps that is the best we can do. But there are at least two other alternatives worth serious consideration."

"The first is the extreme version of the libertarian state: no coercion beyond a monopoly on retaliatory force. Such a state will do less well for us than a state that initiates coercion in the rare circumstances where doing so produces large benefits. But it might do considerably better than the realistic alternative..."

"The second alternative is to eliminate state coercion by eliminating the state. In that world, some coordination problems will go unsolved, making the result worse than the world that would be produced by a state run by perfectly wise and virtuous libertarians. But eliminating the state also eliminates the largest coordination problem of all: the problem of controlling the state. Given the record so far, that is a more serious problem than how to build roads without the power of eminent domain."

Emphasis mine. Both Friedman and Barnett are weighing the costs and benefits of alternative regimes and concluding that while an elimination of the state may involve serious problems, it will also solve many of the problems that inevitably plague any state: namely, the public good of keeping that state properly restrained. Under any reasonable definition of utopianism, this is not it.

Micha Ghertner


No communist ever advocated sacrificing the greatest good for the greatest number in the long run.

This is simply not true. Communists advocated such sacrifices all the time. Here are but a few terrifying examples:

"We are not fighting against single individuals. We are exterminating the bourgeoisie as a class. It is not necessary during the interrogation to look for evidence proving that the accused opposed the Soviets by word or action. The first question which you should ask him is what class does he belong to, what is his origin, his education, and his profession. These are the questions which will determine the fate of the accused. Such is the sense and the essence of red terror."

- M. Y. Latsis, senior official in CHEKA

"The scientific concept, dictatorship, means neither more nor less than unlimited power resting directly on force, not limited by anything, not restrained by any laws or any absolute rules. Nothing else but that."

- V.I. Lenin

"These leeches have drunk the blood of toilers, growing richer the more the workers starved in the cities and factories. The vampires have gathered and continue to gather in their hands the lands of landlords, enslaving, time and time again, the poor peasants. Merciless war against these kulaks! Death to them!"

- Lenin, regarding the peasants who refused to sell food to the state for a pittance.

"[S]o long as other classes continue to exist, the capitalist class in particular, the proletariat fights it (for with the coming of the proletariat to power, its enemies will not yet have disappeared, the old organization of society will not yet have disappeared), it must still use a measure of force, hence governmental measures; if it itself still remains a class and the economic conditions on which the class struggle and the existence of classes have not yet disappeared, they must be forcibly removed or transformed, and the process of their transformation must be forcibly accelerated."

-Karl Marx, After the Revolution

"[T]he three classes of modern society, the feudal aristocracy, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, each have a morality of their own... [W]e can only draw the one conclusion: that men, consciously or unconsciously, derive their ethical ideas in the last resort from the practical relations on which their class position is based... We therefore reject every attempt to impose on us any moral dogma whatsoever as an eternal, ultimate and forever immutable ethical law on the pretext that the moral world, too, has its permanent principles which stand above history and the differences between nations."

- Friedrich Engels, Anti-Duhring

“Hatred as an element of the struggle; a relentless hatred of the enemy, impelling us over and beyond the natural limitations that man is heir to and transforming him into an effective, violent, selective and cold killing machine. Our soldiers must be thus; a people without hatred cannot vanquish a brutal enemy.”

—Che Guevara (message to the Tricontinental; 1967)

And so on and so forth. Communists made it very clear what they were willing to sacrifice in order to achieve their goals. They were willing to sacrifice people.

Timothy Burke

Sorry, Micha. I'm with John on this one. Utopia may be the end-state which dare not speak its name in their claims, but they're advocating massive, systemic, radical departures from the status quo (indeed, almost all previous human status quos save those few that anarcho-libertarians claim are not actually the ones that they aim to produce, e.g., most of the actually existing non-state society examples we have) in the name of solving a problem that they claim is both unsolveable within the context of the current dispensation and which trumps all other existing classes of problems by definition. They're much more polite and reserved and qualified in this view that your average pursuer of utopia (or as Barnett puts it in one instance, the "ideal end state") but utopians nevertheless. Anyone who argues for the complete structural transformation of life as we know it in favor of a systematically new dispensation that they *reason* will be superior because it *must* be superior is a utopian of some kind or another. It's to their credit that they're smarter and more reserved about it than most, but then, so were many socialists and communists and so are some "deep ecology" environmentalists today.

Micha Ghertner


Your argument is very similar to the arguments economists like David Friedman and Bryan Caplan use to explain why private security agencies would be relatively stable. War is costly for for-profit firms when they have to foot the bill themselves. War is not quite as costly for politicians, who have a willing tax-base from which to take funds. And yet, even an anarchy of states, which is what we have now (i.e., we lack a world government; all sovereign governments are in a state of anarchy with respect to each other) is relatively stable.

Micha Ghertner


Indeed, if your definition of the word "utopia" is merely a society that has never existed, a society that may be radically different from our own, then I certainly agree with you that anarcho-capitalism is utopian. But if the term "utopia" means an ideally perfect society, then anarcho-capitalism is not.

Also consider that at certain points in human history, the establishment of a liberal democratic state and the abolition of slavery were considered utopian pipe-dreams as well. I'm sure most people living at those times considered advocates of democracy and abolition to be utopian daydreamers, yet aren't we glad that those with a progressive vision were willing to challenge the status quo?

Micha Ghertner

In response to the charge of utopianism, David Friedman wrote,

"There is at least one important sense in which libertarianism is less utopian than modern liberalism. Liberal political rhetoric often assumes that the existence of any bad outcomes--someone who is poor, some child who is not educated--is a strong argument for government intervention to fix the problem. Implicit in that is the utopian assumption that if only we had the right institutions, nothing really bad would ever happen. Most libertarians take it for granted that even under the best of institutions, some bad outcomes will happen--although, of course, they expect fewer bad outcomes to happen under their preferred institutions."

Chun the Unavoidable

Is the path towards neoliberalist utopia (or status quo, whatever you want to call it) paved with blood and torture? 'Cause it sure as hell has been up to this point. The blood and torture objection just doesn't have any legs at all, I'm afraid.

This does not mean that I don't think that American libertarianism is very dangerous.


'But if the term "utopia" means an ideally perfect society, then anarcho-capitalism is not'
It seems evident enough that the term utopia in this case refers to a society closer to a state of perfection than any that has preceded it.

Classic Liberal

Every time I think about starting a blog, I come across drivel like the above posting by Belle. She asks "How do I fire my private-rights enforcement group again?" You stop paying them, that's how. How do I fire my government rights enforcement group? The answer is, you can't. If you're lucky, once a year you get to cast one vote out of a thousand or more to change sheriffs and if they decide to shoot an innocent person (which democratically elected governments do sometimes), well, tough, right? Better that than anarchy, eh?

Jonathan Wilde

Much of the criticisms of Barnett and Friedman raised in this thread reflect deep unfamiliarity with their works. They are both thoughtful and questioning of their own beliefs, even to the point of true skepticism. If you really know that you are correct and what Friedman and Barnett believe is 'utopian', the least you can do is actually read their arguments in their original form to prove to yourselves they are indeed wrong.

Next, I see the charge of 'utopian' thrown around a lot without it ever being defined. Does 'utopian' mean a condition that has been rare in the world? Does 'utopian' mean something incompatible with human nature?

If it means the former, I suggest that 'utopian' is not a good criteria for evaluating any particular philosophy. After all, in the 17th century, the classical liberals were also utopians - "What do you mean you want to get rid of the king? What do you mean by 'rights'? How can you have law without a monarch? Surely individuals cannot be trusted to decide for themselves their own ways of living!"

In the 18th century, the early abolitionists were also utopians, as slavery had existed for thousands of years, and that's how it was always going to be. "But slavery is necessary for the well-being of society. Slavery may be evil; I grant that. But it is a necessary evil. No society has ever existed without slavery."

In the 19th century, the womens' suffrage movements were also utopian - "We can't have women voting! Women don't have the capacity to vote."

If 'utopia' simply means a condition that has not existed before, or has existed only rarely, then anyone who proposes progress is a 'utopian'; yet that label is a compliment not an insult. Without the utopian, there can be no progress in human civilization.

If on the other hand, 'utopian' means a condition incompatible with human nature, then I agree - the utopian serves no purpose. But I submit that if you are agreeable to minarchist libertarian views, i.e., you believe that for most things free markets and individual rights are superior to central planning and rights violations, any exploration of using the free-market to provide law enforcement, adjudication, and personal security is not 'utopian' but rather a fidelity to principles.

(If you don't find free-markets and individual rights agreeable, you would also likely find the latter disagreeable. But that's a different topic for a different day.)

But it is simply inconsistent to say that minarchist libertarians can be taken seriously but that anarcholibertarians are 'fruitcakes' and 'utopians'. The latter simply try to extend the same principles to their natural conclusions.

Timothy Burke

That's a great working definition of utopians, Jonathan: people who insist on extending principles to their "natural" conclusions, and equally insist that anything short of that is inadequate and unacceptable.

Jonathan Wilde

That's a great working definition of utopians, Jonathan: people who insist on extending principles to their "natural" conclusions, and equally insist that anything short of that is inadequate and unacceptable.

Well, does that mean that if the principle of "each man owns himself" should be naturally extended to cover all races, that is 'utopian'? Would anything short of all races being free of slavery be acceptable? Are there any principles that should not be violated, ever?

Either way, that definition does not fit either Friedman or Barnett. They see a tradeoff between a minimal state that cannot be restrained from inevitable growth vs competing private security services which while imperfect like everything else in life, have better incentives to not engage in war and democide. They hesitatingly prefer the latter as a potentially better system than the former based on utilitarian economic arguments.

Timothy Burke

If I were to insist that the principle "every man owns himself" required the abolition of prisons and all other forms of state restraint on individuals (an abrogation of self-ownership), private property (property claims save self-ownership being able to intrude upon or compromise self-ownership), and so on, ayup, I'd be a utopian. If I were to insist merely that self-ownership be right-enforced by a state to the extent to which it was practical and didn't run up against other, equally powerful first principles (say, the old chestnut about rights to swing fists ending at other people's noses), at which time I'd be forced to make tough choices on a case-by-case basis, no, I wouldn't be a utopian.

If I were to insist that "competiting private security services", while "imperfect", would *inevitably* and *intrinsically* be better than the current dispensation by their very nature--in the face of a reasonable number of counter-examples in which the means of violence were effectively privatized, I'd also be a utopian--asking people to do something that actual precedent suggests leads to extremely unpleasant lives for most based on a moral intuition that it would be better than a situation which is, for many people, not too bad.

You're entitled to dream a better world if you like, but don't try to pretend somehow that in so doing, you're just proposing minor commonsensical piecemeal reforms to the status quo. Looking at Friedman and Barnett, both of them seem to have a pretty clear idea of just how radical their visions are, even if they try to be polite and hesitant about it. When you set up a rigged game, there's only so much innocence you can feign when the dice keep turning up snake eyes.

Micha Ghertner

If I were to insist that "competiting private security services", while "imperfect", would *inevitably* and *intrinsically* be better than the current dispensation by their very nature

This is a strawman. Neither Barnett, nor Friedman, nor any other anarcho-capitalist maintains this position. They may claim to have good reasons for believing and good arguments for supporting private security as more efficient than public security, but that is far from a utopian claim that this is inevitable or intrinsic.

If you insist that Barnett and Friedman do in fact argue for your strawman, and ignore any historical cases that are appropriately applicable, then you would surely be entitled to dismissing them as hopeless utopians. But I don't see you giving an accurate account of their arguments. When you set up a rigged game...

Jonathan Wilde

If I were to insist that the principle "every man owns himself" required the abolition of prisons and all other forms of state restraint on individuals (an abrogation of self-ownership), private property (property claims save self-ownership being able to intrude upon or compromise self-ownership), and so on, ayup, I'd be a utopian.

Who insists on this?

If I were to insist that "competiting private security services", while "imperfect", would *inevitably* and *intrinsically* be better than the current dispensation by their very nature-

Where do you get this stuff?


Re. international and interpersonal anarchy: There are difficulties of scale between the balance of power that prevents wars breaking out between states, and the desired balance of power that would prevent groups (e.g. private security agencies) within society exerting power over individuals.

Presumably such an agency would receive funding from *many* individuals in exchange for its services. If it abused its power towards a *single* individual it wouldn't lose much, unless many of its customers got to know about the abuse of power and withdrew their custom.

Thus, the activities of the agencies have to be absolutely open and transparent to public scrutiny, and fully reported, for the market to eliminate abuses efficiently. How can this be achieved when it's so easy to cover up individual abuses?

In the case of states, you can't cover up an invasion or a missile strike (although Nixon nearly managed it in Laos). State actors cannot evade responsibility, in the sense that everyone knows what they are doing. Small private agencies can, all too easily, do their dirty deeds in the dark and evade responsibility.

Timothy Burke

Look, if you guys read Barnett and Friedman as saying, "I wonder if privatized rights-enforcement might be a better way to go than the state. Hm. Interesting thought. Worth talking about" and you're right that this is all they mean to say, then you're also right, I'm overreading.

But if they're saying, "I'm pretty sure that private rights-enforcement would be systematically better (if not perfect) than suffering the continued existence of the state", and that this is based on an abstract philosophical certitude that the extension of first principles to their natural end conclusion would produce results never yet seen in human experience, then the guarded and qualified nature of the claim is just politesse, and most of my skepticism applies.

Timothy Burke

Two small addendums:

1) On "every man owns himself" and what I extract from that, no one argues the specific political vision I extract from that--I was trying to illustrate how unpacking dramatically totalizing political visions from a philosophical principle is either utopian (in the case of radical departures from the status quo) or not (in the case of modest attempts to improve the status quo based on that principle).

2) On private security and the like--if such measures are not *intrinsically* and *inevitably* more desirable than the state, then there really is no reason to experiment with them, given the irreversability of the experiment. You can't abolish the state for a time just to see whether it's a good idea to do it or not. You pull that trigger, you'd better be sure the results are going to be not merely acceptable, but a dramatic improvement of the human condition. So in a way, damned if you do, damned if you don't: the whole argument is a pointless one without a utopianism embedded within it somewhere, given that the ideas being floated make no sense as small and incremental reforms. If Barnett, Friedman or anyone else is serious about a proposition like "replace state rights-enforcement with privatized security", there's almost no way to do that short of an ideal end-state, short of major transformation. Anything less will be legitimately liable to the critique that its success or lack of success is a consequence of its limited implementation, much the same way that the Trotskyist critique of the Bolshevik Revolution was that it was only revolution in one country and therefore unable to truly succeed.

Allen Taylor

The best way to prove someone wrong is to marginalize them to the point of ridiculousness such that no reasonable person could agree with them. The way to do that is to find a person with rediculous claims who also share reasonable beliefs with the one you want to discredit and point out their similarities. Congratulations to Steve Snyder for putting all libertarians in the same fruitcake-basket.

Fact is, not all libertarians are anarchists. And not all anarcho-libertarians are fruitcakes. In fact, the consistent libertarian philosophy believes in some government, though even among ourselves we may disagree as to how much and in what areas the government should govern. But we would all agree on some things, namely, that private property rights should be protected and that individuals should be free to choose their way of life as long as they do not trample of the rights of others to do the same.

The best defense of liberty can be found in Frederic Bastiat's "The Law." It defines the purpose of the law and to what extent is should be enforced. All political philosophy must start with a proper definition of law and the proper authority for enforcing it.

Bastiat's "legal plunder" observation best defines how government has gone awry. When those who govern do so with the idea that to take away from some to give to others is right, then liberty has been abolished. When those who govern do so with the idea that the property rights of all are best defended by settling disputes through the justice system and encouraging productivity by giving license to those with the best ideas to operate competitively within the framework of government non-interference, then liberty is upheld.

If you want to define how a man views the world, first determine how he views the law. A property understanding of the law will inevitably lead to a libertarian view.


Complete Government control has been tried. It has failed. Can't we at least try anarcho-capitalism? (ok maybe just a daring few) Can't we at least go in the other direction? Just a little?

Libertarianism never promises to solve everyone's problems. It's not for everybody. But it is the best for those who want it.


Libertarianism never promises to solve everyone's problems. It's not for everybody.

As a political view, this is of course correct and a sublime understatement. As a political blueprint, libertarianism surely is meant for everyone, or at least everyone in the society that's going libertarian. How could it not be?


That had to be one of the stupidest and ill-informed essays on anarcho-capitalism and libertarianism in general. Next time try actually reading the writings of some anarcho-capitalists and dealing with their arguments vs. your own made up ideas.

Joe Blow

So-called "libertarians" are just fronts for right-wingers who want corporate rule and state-capitalism. For real ANARCHY I would suggest you read the REAL anarchy faq at:


Property = slavery.

People, not profits,

Belle Waring

Steve: Thank you, please come again!

Alexander Crawford

The trouble with discussing "Libertarian" ideology is that as an organizing principle it'd be difficult to find a starting point less likely to lead to consensus than "individual Liberty". How realistic is it that an Individualist political party will ever be able to organize consistantly enough to gain power? Not very. On top of this "reason" doesn't necessarily make for consistant positions, as political premises change so regularly it's common to find the best reasoned policy of yesterday isn't the best today. In this sense, Libertarianism tends to be reactionary rather than proactive or visionary. We're a threat to ideologies we oppose, sure, but usually are unable to get along otherwise.

This is what's strange about the claims about various Species within the Genus, Libertarian. Species are distinguished within a genus by their differences, not similarities. Thus when discussing a particular species it's not intellectually honest to apply the attributes of the singular to the Genus as a whole. It goes without saying that this is especially the case of Species of Libertarians that vary the most widely from the average.

With this in mind, it'd be helpful if terms were better clarified and/or defined to avoid confusion. It's also be helpful if an argument was stated as affirmative, rather than as a counter-argument to what seems like a straw man conclusion.

David Friedman

Timothy Burke appears to be arguing on the assumption that I (and Randy Barnett) are confident that our proposed institutions would work better than any alternative. I do not see how anyone familiar with my work could hold that opinion.

In _The Machinery of Freedom_, for example, after discussing the problem of national defense without a government, I conclude that if the various imperfect solutions I suggest cannot do the job we are better off not abolishing our government, since I would rather pay my taxes to Washington than to Moscow.

Elsewhere I have argued that whether or not the anarcho-capitalist instituions I have proposed work as I describe depends in part on what size of rights enforcement agency is produced by economies of scale in that industry--if we end up with only a few firms, the system is likely to be unstable.

For the most part, I'm happy with the job other people have been doing of defending me and Randy here, but I do think that if people are going to attack my views they ought to make at least some attempt to first find out what they are. It isn't as if it's hard--_The Machinery of Freedom_ is still in print, most of my articles are webbed on my site, and I have been participating in online discussions of these (and many other) issues for a very long time.

Anton Sherwood

If we must have a Japanese fiction to represent the Old West, I'll take Magnificent Seven over Yojimbo (A Fistful of Dollars).

Fred Firebrand

I consider myself an "anarcho-capitalist" or "anarcho-libertarian". "anarcho" because I think that behaviors we don't tolerate from governments should not be tolerated from *anybody*-- I object to my landlord or boss violating my sovereignity every bit as much as to John Ashcroft doing so. "capitalist/libertarian" to distinguish myself from the "anarchists" who are opposed to property and are basically communists with a new, hip, brand name and logo. No property, no selfishness, equality... and of course a pony for everyone.

Defense and tragedy of the commons don't worry me so much... the brightest libertarian minds are constantly struggling with the issue, and if in the indeterminate time between now and our non-utopia NOBODY can crack these problems, then the liberals are right and we are full of it. The two things I'm worried about are ones that I don't see getting much airplay.

The first is the unspoken assumption that everyone starts out on a level playing field. We do not, because wealth is inherited, and so is poverty! I'll go out on a limb here and say that having insane/abusive/alcoholic/negligent parents might also impact how "productive" you turn out. If everyone was raised in boarding schools, with their physical/psychological needs met, and with a good standard of education, before being set loose into the free market, we wouldn't have any problems... people would do as well or as badly as they deserved to on their own merits (but then there is the dilemma of who would decide how to raise the children and who would pay for it). In current society and in any society that can realistically evolve from it in the forseeable future, we will continue to have a watered-down aristocracy and a watered-down peasantry. If Bill Gates' daughter someday decides to compete with your daughter in some endeavour, guess who's going to have access to superior training/resources/equipment/capital?

The second dilemma has already been hinted at in this thread. If the supreme right is property, how do you prevent employers from abusing employees and landlords from abusing tennants? Furthermore, how can people exercise their inherent right to freedom of speech and assembly if every possible venue is controlled by someone who could theoretically silence an opinion they disagree with? Competition isn't a guaranteed safeguard-- it's yet to be proven that all industries are immune to spontaneous consolidation.

On this I do have some thoughts (though maybe I'm just rediscovering something that some libertarian scholar has already discussed at length).

1) Have a 'contractual bill of rights'. Rights that are inalienable, and cannot be waived by any contract. Contract or clauses therein that attempt stipulate waivers of these rights are null and void.

2) If all the real estate starts out being owned by one entity and then auctioned off or rented to the citizens, then the contractual bill of rights could attached as a rider to the leases or conditions of sale, and require that any sub-leases or sales also have the same rider attached.

3) Certain areas that currently have no identifiable owners (e.g. state parks) could be auctioned off to private parties... but with the stipulation of things like right to free speech, free assembly, and free mobility accross them... again, viral stipulations that would follow that property around in perpetuity much like GPL follows the source code that's licensed under it. Likewise, for something to be accredited (by a private company or consortium of private companies) as a road/bridge/railway/port, it would have to have such stipulations. This prevents the paradox of "you're a tennant/employee whose conditions are intolerable, but you literally cannot leave without trespassing because your landlord/boss has bought up all the surrounding properties"

Steve: Thank you, please come again!

You are quite welcome. So did you do any reading on anarcho-capitalism or are you till wallowing in your own ignorance and patting yourself on the back at the same time?

The comments to this entry are closed.

Email John & Belle

  • he.jpgjholbo-at-mac-dot-com
  • she.jpgbbwaring-at-yahoo-dot-com

Google J&B

J&B Archives

Hey Kids! Free Plato Book!

S&O @ J&B

  • www.flickr.com
    This is a Flickr badge showing items in a set called Squid and Owl. Make your own badge here.

Reason and Persuasion Illustrations

  • www.flickr.com

J&B Have A Tipjar

  • Search Now:

  • Buy a couple books, we get a couple bucks.
Blog powered by Typepad

J&B Have A Comment Policy

  • This edited version of our comment policy is effective as of May 10, 2006.

    By publishing a comment to this blog you are granting its proprietors, John Holbo and Belle Waring, the right to republish that comment in any way shape or form they see fit.

    Severable from the above, and to the extent permitted by law, you hereby agree to the following as well: by leaving a comment you grant to the proprietors the right to release ALL your comments to this blog under this Creative Commons license (attribution 2.5). This license allows copying, derivative works, and commercial use.

    Severable from the above, and to the extent permitted by law, you are also granting to this blog's proprietors the right to so release any and all comments you may make to any OTHER blog at any time. This is retroactive. By publishing ANY comment to this blog, you thereby grant to the proprietors of this blog the right to release any of your comments (made to any blog, at any time, past, present or future) under the terms of the above CC license.

    Posting a comment constitutes consent to the following choice of law and choice of venue governing any disputes arising under this licensing arrangement: such disputes shall be adjudicated according to Canadian law and in the courts of Singapore.

    If you do NOT agree to these terms, for pete's sake do NOT leave a comment. It's that simple.

  • Confused by our comment policy?

    We're testing a strong CC license as a form of troll repellant. Does that sound strange? Read this thread. (I know, it's long. Keep scrolling. Further. Further. Ah, there.) So basically, we figure trolls will recognize that selling coffee cups and t-shirts is the best revenge, and will keep away. If we're wrong about that, at least someone can still sell the cups and shirts. (Sigh.)