Burke’s Right Minds is a project exploring and promoting viewpoints within the conservative intellectual sphere, jointly run by The Burkean and the Edmund Burke Institute.
Why I believe what I do about Libertarianism
I have to confess that I haven’t always been a libertarian; mea culpa, mea culpa, mea ultima culpa! I came to libertarianism relatively late in my life when I finally realised that it was the only political position that took the freedom of the individual human being seriously. (The clue is in its name!)
Libertarianism is based on the belief that individuals have an inalienable right to live their own lives as they see fit so long as they observe one limiting condition. This limiting condition can be expressed in the zero-aggression principle, the acceptance of which makes you a libertarian, the rejection of which puts you outside the libertarian fold.
Zero-aggression principle (ZAP): No one may initiate or threaten to initiate the use of coercive physical violence [aggression] against the person or property of another.
But one might reasonably object that freedom isn’t the only human good. Indeed, freedom is not the only human good nor indeed is it even the most important substantive good; it is, however, the foundation and guardian of all other social and political goods.
But don’t we need a state to maintain law and order and justice and to provide basic social services? It is true that in the contemporary world, the state is considered necessary for the provision of many things but most of all for the provision of peace and security by means of its powers of law-making, law-adjudication and law-enforcement. It is widely believed that without the state there would be widespread disorder, violence, and chaos in society.
When it comes to the question of the state and its role, libertarians come in two basic types. Those who accept a minimal night-watchman state, its functions limited exclusively to justice and law enforcement, are minarchists; those, like me, who believe that all that human beings need for their social and political flourishing—including law, justice and security—can be provided by the free interaction of individuals and groups, are anarchists.
Apart from its provision of justice and security, the contemporary state does many other things. It provides extensive financial support to a large segment of the population (at a considerable cost to yet another segment of the population); it organises and pays for the education (or, at least, the schooling and certification) of the masses from elementary school to university; in many countries, it organizes and pays for the health services that most people have access to either at no cost or minimal cost to users (but at a staggering cost to the taxpayer); it provides roads, sewage and refuse services; it regulates business, industry, agriculture, and so on ad nauseam.
Some people may be prepared to accept that education and health and roads and sewage and so on could be provided for by the free interactions of individuals and groups but what, they ask, will happen to the poor and the incapable? Wouldn’t they suffer in a libertarian world? Doesn’t the modern state provide a minimal safety net for such people?
Well, yes – but badly and at an enormous financial and social cost. Here, as everywhere else, the state is part of the problem, not part of the solution. When libertarian anarchists propose dismantling the state, most people think that what we will have is exactly what we had before, without the protection of welfare. But this is not what libertarian anarchists have in mind at all.
What we will have when the state is deconstructed is a society in which all are encouraged to work for themselves, their families, their friends and their communities, to produce and to dispose of their production without having a huge portion of it confiscated by the idle ruling class and diverted towards welfare, whether of the individual or corporate variety. Individual welfare is the latter-day equivalent of bread and circuses and corporate welfare is the latter-day equivalent of largesse distributed to courtiers and wealthy merchants.
In institutionalising (relative) poverty, the state creates and maintains a client underclass which it can count on to vote for it when needed. The members of this underclass are infantilised and systematically deprived of the opportunity to escape from their spiritually crippling condition. The tragedy is that they all too readily believe that those who infantilise them are their benefactors.
One thing that will, however, disappear in the libertarian world is the institutionalised poverty of the welfare state and its segregated underclass together with an increased capacity for philanthropy by the many who can dispose of the wealth they create in ways that serve the needs of those with less than they need.
Will the libertarian anarchist world be a paradise? No. No matter how you structure society, there will always be some who are less able, less energetic, less competent than others. The issue is not one of creating the perfect society but creating the conditions for a better society.
So, what to do? First, get the state out of all involvement with the provision of services, such as mail delivery and the like. There is no reason why the state should be involved in such enterprises. Second, get the state out of the provision of health, education and welfare (all welfare, corporate welfare as well as individual welfare).
In all these areas, the state operates incompetently and expensively, and that’s not even to consider that its involvement in education is a major plank in sustaining its own supportive ideology. Third, get the state out of economics, economic planning and regulation. Apart from having no authority here, it also has no competence.
When all this has been done, the only area remaining is that of law, order, and defence. And at this point, you can chose to be either a minarchist or an anarchist, unless, of course, you reject the ZAP. In which case, you had better be prepared to justify your willingness to use physical violence against the person or property of another. Think about it.
If you enjoyed this piece, make sure to listen in to the podcast on The Right Side tomorrow that analyses these ideas in more detail.
Excellently written. Thanks.
Sure opened my eyes.