Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Libertarian Spectrum and Government

At LRC, Walter Block recently posted an interview he did with the NBC affiliate in Baton Rouge.  Subsequently he posted the background story – a video of apparently the entire, unedited interview.  As with anything Dr. Block writes or says, this longer video is well worth the time.

I will focus on one segment of the interview, where Dr. Block discusses the libertarian spectrum.  It is an interesting topic, especially to those of us who find our way into this political theory and struggle with where exactly in this scale we might find comfort.

I do not have a transcript of the interview, so what I attribute to Dr. Block is paraphrased.

He begins at the top, with what he describes as the most consistent libertarian position, being an anarcho-capitalist position.  As one of the pillars if not the pillar of libertarian theory is the non-aggression principle, Dr. Block points out that there cannot be government.  He places himself within this camp.

Next on the spectrum is the minarchist, one who believes that government exists solely for the purpose of protection of people and property.  Toward this end, appropriate government functions are limited to a defensive military, the police (but only for crimes of aggression), and courts.  He places Ayn Rand in this camp.

Third is described as a Constitutionalist – one who accepts government within a strict reading and understanding of the Constitution – which Dr. Block describes as not authorizing much more than a military, police, and court; but also including a post office and a few other offices.  He suggests that Ron Paul is an example of a libertarian with this position.

Finally he includes classical liberals – those with relatively good free market inclinations and favoring relatively smaller government.  In this context, he mentions Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, and Rand Paul.

As one of the best thinkers in libertarian theory, it seems to me that if Walter Block can be open to such a broad spectrum under the umbrella of “libertarian,” perhaps the myriad internecine struggles within our community on the litmus tests might be seen as petty.  Although Rothbard makes clear that we should regularly remain open to debating such issues amongst us, as it helps both to clear up faulty thinking and to further develop the theory.

So right off the bat, I will take a whack at one of the four categories that Dr. Block includes as “libertarian” – I personally cannot include the fourth category within a spectrum of what I would describe as libertarian – especially given the names he associates within this view. 

However, this is tangential to my main purpose in this post.  Dr. Block’s comments offer an opportunity to explore this idea of “government.”  It is a term that has come to mean one thing today – a monopoly institution of legalized coercion; an institution charged with legislating, executing, and adjudicating the law.  In times of old, such an institution would have been labeled a tyranny.

“Are you an anarchist?” “Do you believe in government?” For many who find comfort within the libertarian spectrum, if the answer to one of these questions is yes, the answer to the other must be no.

It seems to me that the answer to both depends on definitions.  I won’t spend significant time on my definition of anarchism – suffice it to say it is consistent with that which is understood within much of the libertarian community.  Call it Rothbardian.

However, I will explore the concept of government.  Over the years, I have decided it would be virtually impossible to live in a world without government.  Shocked?  Please, bear with me.

There are many types of government.  First might be considered self-government.  Reasonably healthy adults typically are able to restrain themselves from becoming rabid animals in social settings.  They attempt to be productive members in society; they meet their financial and personal obligations.

There is the government of the family structure. Raising reasonably healthy children, providing guidelines and sanctions, and setting expectations for behavior all are aspects of or otherwise require government. 

There is the church, providing moral and ethical counsel. The church provides guidelines for behavior, and sanctions relative to the guidelines.  There is an expectation of performance if one wants to remain within the church family.

There is the community – be a good neighbor.  If one wants to live in relative peace with his neighbors, it is important to understand community expectations and figure out ways to satisfactorily live within these expectations.

There is the market – find ways to profitably serve your fellow man.  Do a good job and you are rewarded with resources to continue and grow; do a poor job and see resources drained and eventually you are forced to stop.

All of these are forms of government that seem to me to be quite acceptable.  For this reason, I can answer yes to both questions.

What, then, is unacceptable about the term “government”?  In what criteria would I answer “no” to the question above?

It is the issue of monopoly and the initiation of force.  It is the violation of the non-aggression principle.

I am all for government that doesn’t violate these.  I don’t know how society could exist without such “government.”  Perhaps a better term that fits within my cube would be “governance.”

I am against government that exists via such means and in order to perpetuate these.  Perhaps the term to apply to such a government is the “state,” or “tyrant.”

This is the struggle I have when I am asked one of these two – or both – questions.  I consider myself to be an anarchist is the best Rothbardian sense.  I also believe in government (governance) in the sense I describe here.

I am all for government; just don’t violate the non-aggression principle when delivering it!


  1. l could not agree more. Nock said it perfectly in his "Our Enemy, The State", as found here at Lew (this book set me straight on much that was confounding and confusing me)...

    Clearly, then, we have two distinct types of political organization to take into account; and clearly, too, when their origins are considered, it is impossible to make out that the one is a mere perversion of the other. Therefore when we include both types under a general term like government, we get into logical difficulties; difficulties of which most writers on the subject have been more or less vaguely aware, but which, until within the last half-century, none of them has tried to resolve.

    Mr. Jefferson, for example, remarked that the hunting tribes of Indians, with which he had a good deal to do in his early days, had a highly organized and admirable social order, but were "without government". Commenting on this, he wrote Madison that "it is a problem not clear in my mind that [this] condition is not the best," but he suspected that it was "inconsistent with any great degree of population".

    --snip --

    Paine's theory of government agrees exactly with the theory set forth by Mr. Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence. The doctrine of natural rights, which is explicit in the Declaration, is implicit in Common Sense; and Paine's view of the "design and end of government" is precisely the Declaration's view, that "to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men"; and further, Paine's view of the origin of government is that it "derives its just powers from the consent of the governed." Now, if we apply Paine's formulas or the Declaration's formulas, it is abundantly clear that the Virginian Indians had government; Mr. Jefferson's own observations show that they had it. Their political organization, simple as it was, answered its purpose. Their code-apparatus sufficed for assuring freedom and security to the individual, and for dealing with such trespasses as in that state of society the individual might encounter – fraud, theft, assault, adultery, murder.

    --snip --

    Assuredly, if the language of the Declaration amounts to anything, all these peoples had government; and all these reporters make it appear as a government quite competent to its purpose.

    Therefore when Mr. Jefferson says his Indians were "without government," he must be taken to mean that they did not have a type of government like the one he knew; and when Schoolcraft and Spencer speak of "regular" and "definite" government, their qualifying words must be taken in the same way. This type of government, nevertheless, has always existed and still exists, answering perfectly to Paine's formulas and the Declaration's formulas; though it is a type which we also, most of us, have seldom had the chance to observe. It may not be put down as the mark of an inferior race, for institutional simplicity is in itself by no means a mark of backwardness or inferiority; and it has been sufficiently shown that in certain essential respects the peoples who have this type of government are, by comparison, in a position to say a good deal for themselves on the score of a civilized character. Mr. Jefferson's own testimony on this point is worth notice, and so is Parkman's. This type, however, even though documented by the Declaration, is fundamentally so different from the type that has always prevailed in history, and is still prevailing in the world at the moment, that for the sake of clearness the two types should be set apart by name, as they are by nature. They are so different in theory that drawing a sharp distinction between them is now probably the most important duty that civilization owes to its own safety. Hence it is by no means either an arbitrary or academic proceeding to give the one type the name of government, and to call the second type simply the State.

    1. Very good. Thank you for these comments.

    2. Skeeter-

      You are ROCKING it! I am so glad that your voice is getting more exposure at LRC and ECONOMICPOLICYJOURNAL.COM! Great article.

  2. I'll be speaking with Dr. Block for the podcast this week. This article serves as a good primer - posting on Lions.

    1. You may want to ask him about "evictionism." It is one area where I disagree with him, and on his terms (not moral, but contractual).

  3. Good suggestion...I'll add it to the queue.