Reply to Thrasher

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Reply to Thrasher

by Ari Armstrong, June 17, 2002

I'm generally sympathetic with the John Thrasher's comments (www.freecolorado.com/2002/06/thrasher.html). I want to explore a few issues in more detail, however.

I believe the distinction between "pure" and "practical" libertarians is wholly fallacious. Libertarianism is practical precisely because it is principled. The whole matter for libertarian activists is how best to persuade other people that our ideas work. This, of course, entails persuasion and outreach. We will never achieve a libertarian world simply because our ideas happen to be correct. We've also got to give our ideas social traction.

Thrasher argues that libertarians are those who want to abolish the state. The trouble, of course, is to figure out what the "state" is.

In Our Enemy the State, Albert Jay Nock (Hallbert 1983, page 42) writes, "Based on the idea of natural rights, government secures those rights to the individual by strictly negative intervention, making justice costless and easy of access; and beyond that it does not go. The State, on the other hand, both in its genesis and by its primary intention, is purely anti-social. It is not based on the idea of natural rights, but on the idea that the individual has no rights except those that the State may provisionally grant him."

Based on this description, the United States' federal government is both government and state. It offers some services along the lines of "negative intervention," but it also forcibly redistributes wealth and deprives us our rights.

The problem with Nock's explanation is that it refers to "costless" justice. "There ain't no such thing as free justice." Somebody has got to pay for it. A lot of libertarians -- by my sense the large majority -- believe "justice services" should be funded through taxes.

The Objectivists argue that a "government" by geographic monopoly of "justice services" is essential to the very existence of property rights and civilized society. Rand suggested that taxes might be replaced by, say, a state lottery, but David Friedman has demolished that position. Of course, Friedman also believes the Randian minimal state is both unnecessary to establish property rights and counter-productive.

My own view is that the debate between "minarchy" and "anarcho-capitalism" is not very interesting in today's social climate. Libertarians of all stripes need each other, and we have too many tangible goals to accomplish to get bogged down in a perhaps intractable argument.

The definition of "libertarianism" I favor is similar to one advanced by Bill Bradford of Liberty Magazine. Here's my attempt: "A libertarian is one who believes the sole, legitimate purpose of government is to protect individual rights based on first-in-time property rights, and who advocates either a government by competing legal agencies or by a legal monopoly that at most establishes a system of courts, police, and military defense."

My definition is broad enough to include Objectivists and anarcho-capitalists. Like Nock's, my definition of "government" is not bound up with the concept of "state," and my definition of "government" applies even to a Friedman-style system of competing legal agencies. The reference to "first-in-time property rights" is necessary to distinguish libertarianism, which is based on a basically Lockean system of rights, from other social structures that might establish property rights in some alternative way. It's insufficient to say libertarians want to abolish "the initiation of force," because which kinds of force count as "initiatory" and which count as "defensive" depend on our theory of property rights.

I share with Thrasher deep reservations about a number of Vance's statements. (Read more in my article, "Response to Vance: Wise Consistency is a Virtue," at www.freecolorado.com/2002/06/consistency.html.) However, I'm not ready to kick people off the team simply because they advocated limited taxation for purposes of funding police, courts, and the military.

I believe that American libertarians should first strive to re-establish Constitutionally limited government, then seek to achieve a minimal state (which can be achieved within the context of our existing Constitution). At that point, if David Friedman is correct, the system of governance he describes will emerge more or less naturally. If Friedman is incorrect, we'll be left with a minimal state. And that's a prospect that hopefully fills every libertarian heart with joy.

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