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L. Neil Smith's
Number 607, February 13, 2011

"Happy Anniversary!"

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The End of the Minarchist/Anarchist Dispute
by Paul Bonneau

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Attribute to The Libertarian Enterprise

The feud between minarchists and anarchists has come to an end. Most of them just don't realize it yet.

The credit for ending this feud belongs to John Hasnas, via his article, Reflections on the Minimal State (pdf version here).

In that article he examines the logical justification for the "minimal state" and finds it wanting, particularly with the point that the state must provide services that the market cannot. This is not actually the most minimal state. There is another possible more-minimal state, which he refers to as a "remedial state". Even accepting the argument that there are needed services that the market cannot provide, does not imply that a state must provide them, but only that the state must ensure the market can do the job, by remedying such defects that the market may have, preventing it from efficiently providing these services.

After thoroughly examining the logical supports for the state, he then gives an example of a plausible "remedial state" created for the United States. This example is easy to understand, due in large part to its familiarity in a lot of respects.

He concludes,

Let me close with the suggestion that the idea of the remedial state, rather than being merely a whimsical theoretical construct, may ultimately prove to have some value. For, consider what would be required to settle the dispute... whether the state is truly necessary. Since supporters and opponents of the premise could probably argue about what will or will not happen indefinitely, the only way to resolve the point may be to put it to the test in the real world. But how can such a test ever be conducted? Those who believe that a market for legislative, adjudicative, and enforcement services will necessarily lead to tyranny will certainly not be willing to dispense with the state monopoly and its constitutional and democratic limitations merely to settle a point. Yet as long as the state monopolizes these functions, the proposition can never be tested.

The remedial state appears to offer a way around this impasse. Because its power is the power to prevent tyranny and because this power is itself constrained by constitutional and democratic limitations, it possesses the safeguards the opponents of the market regard as necessary. But because it permits a competitive market for legislative, adjudicative, and enforcement services to exist, it allows the claims of the advocates of the market to be tested. If the opponents of the market turn out to be correct, the remedial state will be quite active, and may ultimately convince us that the state should monopolize the provision of the basic services. But if the advocates of the market turn out to be correct, the remedial state will do nothing, and can eventually be dissolved. If the latter is the case, the value of the remedial state will be to facilitate the transition from state to anarchy.

The only possible fly in the ointment that I can see, is this notion that under certain circumstances, "the remedial state will do nothing." People do seem to prefer to justify their existence by doing something, rather than nothing—even when nothing is called for. I don't know if there is a way around this problem. Hasnas' example provides "checks and balances" against it, but who knows how effective those would be. Still, the idea does appear to provide a way around the usual impasse, and to severely reduce the empire-building behaviors, the rent-seeking and corruption implicit in the government provision of services.

Maybe it is time for minarchists and anarchists to stop whacking each other, and join together in working to create a "remedial state"—that is, if we really want to test our beliefs in the forge of the real world, rather than sheltering them from it. After all, sometimes argument is just for the sake of argument, and not for coming to any actual useful conclusions or for directing our actions.


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