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Boaz on Libertarianism and “Government”

On a couple of facebook discussions (here and here, if you are friends with the right people), several people had some interesting and vigorous discussion of David Boaz’s article Are Libertarians Anti-Government? An edited version of some of some of my comments is appended below:

Boaz’s piece implies that libertarians are all minarchists. This is simply wrong. It’s fine if he’s a minarchist but he’s wrong to imply that the standard or only libertarian view is minarchist. His piece also implies that early America was some kind of proto- or quasi-libertarian system, that the Constitution is legitimate and that a written constitution is necessary and a good idea. Nonsense. The Constitution was just a centralizing power grab of a coup d’etat (see Rockwell on Hoppe on the Constitution as Expansion of Government Power). It has predictably led to the centralizing tyranny we have now. To hold up the Constitution as some kind of libertarian-compatible document is a mistake. The Constitution is just PR used by the state to delude the people into thinking it’s limited and legitimate, so that it can get away with even more pillaging and plundering of the people–the sheeple who say “we are the government”.

Second, I think he’s equivocating in his use of “government.” Some minarchists, like Tibor Machan, start out like this: observing that libertarians, even anarchists, don’t oppose “government”–defined, as Boaz does, as “a set of institutions through which we adjudicate our disputes, defend our rights, and provide for certain common needs. It derives its authority, at some level and in some way, from the consent of the governed.” Note how Boaz carefully words this here so that it possibly includes non-state institutions. What he should have done next is say that some libertarians think these institutions have to be a (minarchist) state; while others think that it can/must be totally stateless. Then he could have argued that the minarchist version of this has to have certain constitutional limits, etc.

A third problem is his promotion of the Constitution as if that is libertarian. I’m getting tired of libertarians equating “early America” with proto-libertarianism. He says, “how should we describe the libertarian position? To answer that question, we need to go back to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.” But this implies the libertarian view is defined by the Constitution, and that we are pro-Constitution. Not true. (The case for the Declaration being quasi-libertarian is not as difficult to make. But the horrible Constitution?!)

He says: “the form of government and the limits on its powers should be specified in a constitution”. This is not a libertarian view. It is the American mentality of how to set up states. Britain has an unwritten constitution. They don’t need to be written.

On a more substantive issue, a commentator on the thread wrote, in defense of Boaz: “This suggests that unless you really have good reason to think most of your property is pretty safe from being taken, you don’t really have a private property economy.” I agree. And that’s why they say that no man’s property is safe while the legislature is in session. Of course, the existence of the state and legislation simply makes property rights less secure and increases uncertainty. See my Legislation and the Discovery of Law in a Free Society, section III.B; Hans-Hermann Hoppe, Time Preference, Government, and the Process of De-Civilization—From Monarchy to Democracy.

Update: I just came across a passage that supports the notion that the standard connotation of “government” is as a rough synonym for state, despite the somewhat tortured efforts of minarchists to sometimes argue that “government” is not necessarily compulsory/statist: Roderick Long, in his excellent Market Anarchism as Constitutionalism (ch. 9 of Long & Machan, eds., Anarchism/Minarchism: Is a Government Part of a Free Country?):

A legal system is any institution or set of institutions in a given society that provides dispute resolution in a systematic and reasonably predictable way. it does so through the exercise of three functions: the judicial, the legislative, and the executive. The judicial function, the adjudication of disputes, is the core of any legal system; the other two are ancillary to this. The legislative function is to determine the rules that will govern the process of adjudication (this function may be merged with the judicial function, as when case law arises through precedents, or it may be exercised separately), while the executive function is to secure submission (through a variety of means, which may or may not include violence) to the adjudicative process and compliance with its verdicts. A government or state (for present purposes i shall use these terms interchangeably) is any organisation that claims, and in large part achieves, a forcibly maintained monopoly, within a given geographical territory, of these legal functions, and in particular of the use of force in the executive function.

Now the market anarchist objection to government is simply a logical extension of the standard libertarian objection to coercive monopolies in general. …

{ 5 comments… add one }
  • J. H. Huebert April 19, 2010, 5:28 am

    I’m not sure that it’s accurate to say that the Constitution is “just PR used by the state to delude the people into thinking it’s limited and legitimate.” It does do that, which is extremely important for libertarians to recognize, but it also does limit government in important ways.

    For example, if we were to repeal the First Amendment, this would have effects other than reducing the amount of state PR. Though far from perfect, the First Amendment does seem to be much more effective than Britain’s unwritten constitution at protecting speech rights. Maybe you could argue that this is just the product of America’s already more libertarian culture, but I have trouble believing that America would have maintained its strong pro-free-speech culture without the First Amendment.

    It’s easy to imagine written constitutions that would do much better than ours — e.g., by providing more explicitly for more decentralization, requiring a supermajority for the legislature to do anything, defining and limiting the legislature’s powers more explicitly. Such a constitution would still fail in the long run, but in the meantime, it would do more than “just” be state PR.

    That said, it seems strange to suggest, as Boaz does, that we should look to the Constitution to see what the libertarian position is. And it’s funny that he says this without including any caveat about the Constitution’s original sanctioning of slavery, or all of the other evils perpetrated by the U.S. government under the Constitution. Because I am inclined to interpret my fellow libertarians charitably, though, I will not use this to insinuate that David Boaz actually favors slavery, murder, etc.

  • Karen DeCoster April 19, 2010, 5:52 am

    Big mistake – you made no mention of gay sex! (Or interracial marriage) [See Boaz’s “Up From Slavery.”]

  • Karen DeCoster April 19, 2010, 5:54 am

    “Because I am inclined to interpret my fellow libertarians charitably.” Jacob – since when? Who laid out the policy for this funny new libertarian “diplomacy” everyone is practicing? I want a set of the rules sent to me ……

    • Stephan Kinsella April 19, 2010, 8:05 am


      I suspect Huebert is subtly referring to Boaz’s Up from Slavery piece, and other, more outrageous, insinuations by some Catoites about the motives of some of us for, say, favoring secession etc.

      Huebert: you make good points. I agree with all of them. However I think the limits the Constitution places on the state are a double-edged sword. They help cloak the state with legitimacy, which lets it get away, over time, with far more than it could otherwise.

  • Karen DeCoster April 19, 2010, 6:53 pm

    Oh I know – I was just teasing our bud Huebert. After all, he hasn’t been a part of this strange, new “diplomacy” that started with the public smackdown of LvMI with the awful Rizzo letter ……

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