Although I identify most closely with Libertarian principles, I’m starting to edge away from Libertarianism upon further reflection because the ideological role of the State appears untenable in practice.
The reason Libertarian ideology concerning the State’s role across broader contexts may “appear” viable is because of Pax America that is made possible by the power of the American Republic. The Republic itself is not a weak State, but rather an extremely powerful one, founded upon and adheres to many ideas in Libertarianism such as Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.
Ideas are not enough though, there must exist quality institutions and rule of law to practically implement those ideas, and this is where ideology is not enough and contradictory.
I take the view that the opposite of a powerful authoritarian State, that can impose its will to enslave and crush the individual, is not a “weak” State nor a “lack” of State but a powerful State with institutions based on principles that counter authoritarianism.
I will consider here what States are, and some practical contexts of how a weak State or lack of State are flawed ideas that don’t stand up to closer scrutiny.
What are States?
Practical View of State Formation
If we strip away philosophy, ideology, and superficial layers of what constitutes a State and just focus on the most practical level, it is plain to see that a State is just an institution that has a monopoly on violence and usually existing within some defined geographical boundary.
So long as person A has some way of exerting influence over person B, via persuasion, violence, or the threat of violence, and that two-person group has collectively more power than person C, then person C can be coerced into a more powerful three-person group. This process can then extend to include a fourth person and this process can be repeated for many more people.
This inductive process may also act to coalesce individuals into small independent groups, which repeats the inductive process both to more groups and groups of larger size. Eventually, a larger entity forms that is more powerful than all its constituents and this is called a State, which can exist as a Monarchy, Empire, Caliphate, Republic, or any of the other forms of States we see.
Monopoly on Violence
Whether with respect to each person individually or upon groups, the State holds a monopoly on violent power within its sphere of influence.
Anarchy at the individual level or at the group level is a temporary and transitional period in the inevitable formation of a larger State.
Beneficial Aspects of States
The State’s monopoly on violence may be beneficial to those affected since it allows all constituents to offload security concerns to a common third party, and furthermore to realize economies of scale in security and other services that otherwise would cost much more resources.
Let’s consider a simple example involving wealth and taxes.
Whenever there exist economic resources and wealth that can be owned, the reality is there’s a risk of murder to simply take that wealth. Thus, it’s necessary to allocate some amount of wealth to protect existing wealth. Although it is technically possible that all individuals or groups pay for their own security, taxes are a way to realize economies of scale in providing for this security.
We could question why murder, protection of wealth, and economies of scale that a State can provide are required, but this would be an exercise in philosophy that ignores the violent aspects of human nature in formulating theories of government.
Problematic Aspects of States
The problems with States arise when it exercises its monopoly on violence in a way where constituents believe is unjust.
For example, let us consider the arbitrary appropriation of private property without compensation.
This arbitrary confiscation of property owned by a segment of the population by the State is obviously a terrible outcome for that segment, but it also acts to lower the sustainability of that State.
If people do not see that their private property is secure, which may include their wealth or their very lives, they may not be incentivized to produce under the State and more powerful States may arise and develop to displace it.
In fact, this is what we saw between America and the Soviet Union. Because the rights are individuals are protected, most especially private property, many are collectively incentivized to make the State powerful and prosperous, and thus ensuring sustainability.
It is mainly when a small minority that uses the power of the State for its own interests that States stagnate, decline, and ultimately fail. This is not a problem with the existence of States themselves, but rather from the unsustainable and improper running of the State by a select few.
Libertarian’s Core Problem With States
The core problem with the Libertarian view of States is the ideological view that States are fundamentally evil and that States are a “necessary” evil to be limited and restrained at every turn. Some extremists such as anarcho-capitalists want to dissolve the notion of the State altogether.
However, the very existence of States is just a symptom of a far more fundamental and inevitable cause, which is the unequal balance of power starting from two individuals, which can continue to three, and inductively to larger numbers.
If there’s a way to prevent the influence of one person on another person to form a power bloc that can then influence a third person, and include others, then States can be avoided and are not inevitable.
However, this seems impossible so long as there exist people, and thus States are unavoidable.
The State In Natural Laws and Natural Rights
Libertarians speak of “Natural Laws” and “Natural Rights”, which are laws or rights that exist by themselves independent of the existence of the State. These “laws” and “rights” are in contrast to “positive” laws and rights, which do not exist naturally but only provided in the presence of a State.
Examples of Natural Law include “Life, Liberty, and Pursuit of Happiness”, words which were written into the US Constitution by Thomas Jefferson, who was highly influenced by the philosopher John Locke who contributed greatly to the Englightenment.
Natural Law and Natural Rights sound like very good things are pleasing theoretically, but wouldn’t those Natural Laws require a powerful State that believes in them to guarantee you them in a “positive” way?
How specifically would someone exercise their “natural” right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness if there were no powerful State to ensure them against those more powerful who believe differently? Most relevantly, in this case, consider that powerful State to be America.
How do you exercise natural rights or “any” rights in the following areas without sufficient violent power, which requires becoming effectively an equally or more powerful State yourself?
- Rural Mexico dominated by drug cartels
- Within the Islamic State-controlled territories
- Hitler’s Nazi Germany
- Stalin’s Soviet Union
- Mao’s Communist China
In all these cases, any credible claim of Natural Rights must be backed by a superior violent power, or your claim of natural rights is totally irrelevant.
The State and Capitalism
It’s a fundamental tenet in Libertarianism that Capitalism in the presence of “weak” States permits the flourishing of trade, free markets, and benefits to society that come from the efficient allocation of resources through market mechanisms.
Although I do strongly believe that economies based on market mechanisms are far superior to centrally-planned economies, this is actually a statement about the utility of market mechanisms rather than the strength of the State. A weak State with a bad ideological outlook towards market mechanisms may not lead to strong robust markets compared to a strong state with a beneficial ideological outlook.
I believe anarcho-capitalists and many proponents of Libertarianism get it precisely backward. It is not a “weak” State that makes for a good environment for sustainable Capitalism, but a “strong” State with good laws, policies, and regulations.
It’s necessary to have a strong State to ensure fair and orderly markets that feature, for example:
- Enforcement of contracts
- Truthful and non-fraudulent reporting in financial statements and enforcement of punishments otherwise
- Prevention of market manipulation through false statements
- No insider trading that unfairly benefits those with privileged information
- Equal and timely access to information about company operations to all market participants without prejudice
Extremist Libertarian Philosophy Only Seems Practical
Many ideas about States in Libertarian philosophy may only seem practical since there exists a dominant and powerful State across the world that believes in the values espoused by Libertarianism, such as “Life, Liberty, and Pursuit of Happiness”, as well as private property, Due Process, Freedom of Speech, and the rest of the Civil Liberties we enjoy.
That State is America, and it makes possible a relatively peaceful international world order.
Seasteading On Oceans and Analogues on Land
The Seasteading Institute and related foundations that consider the creation of new sovereign nation-states on the open oceans are impractical since they only superficially account for the role of violence and the role of the US Navy in Pax Americana.
What would the viable responses of Seasteads be if nation-states like China decided to attack them, execute everyone on board, and simply confiscate all the wealth? It wouldn’t even require a large and powerful nation-state since even much weaker States like the United Arab Emirates or Vietnam could completely annihilate Seasteads.
If the US Navy did not completely dominate the oceans for a highly-contrived and artificial environment of relative peace that the world has not experienced before, at least in a very long time, it would be more difficult to conceive of small Seasteads that could exist as independent sovereign nations.
Middle East: Syria and Turkey
Consider how the land equivalent of Seasteading would look like, as in sovereign independent nation-states in various hostile territories.
In particular, along the Syrian and Turkish border immediately after the drawdown of American troops from Syria with multiple competing groups claiming to be the State, while being dominated by the most powerful Turkish State in the region.
Any Libertarian political entities in the area would need to be a large and violent State itself in order simply to survive. There is no viable Libertarian State possible in the chaotic and violent environment after America pulls out from the area.
How Would Libertarian States Address Aggressive Socialist States?
Another issue is that even if Libertarianism does make sense and is sustainable, how would it practically stem the tide of more powerful collectivist Socialist States that have no problems with trampling on individual liberty such as life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and property?
Examples of these types of Socialist States include the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, and Communist China. They surely had no qualms with exercising State power to the fullest extent over the individual, much like they wouldn’t have any problems exercising it over smaller Libertarian states.
Fighting to Maintain The Libertarian Order?
What would it mean if a Libertarian State fights to preserve its principles?
If it’s against a large and powerful Socialist State, then the Libertarian State would also have to be large and powerful itself.
In order to fight effectively, the Libertarian State would need to institute the draft in order to meet the manpower requirements to fight against the aggressive Socialist State. But this contradicts an important Libertarian principle of not coercing someone to fight, kill, or die.
Let’s assume all manpower needs are met.
How many Libertarians would agree to firebombing entire cities in order to win the war against the Socialist State? Or shoot artillery that could cause collateral damage and loss of innocent lives? Or through action or inaction, explicit or implicit, act to kill those conscripted on the other side against their will?
It would seem that in these cases, it is a fundamental contradiction between minimal States espousing Libertarian values, and fighting to address challenges that serve to act against those values.
Practical Views On States
Problems with Ideology
Thus, it would seem that extreme Libertarian ideals in general and views of the State in particular are untenable at best and can lead to completely contradictory situations.
Thus, anytime you find yourself relying exclusively on ideology, it’s important to step back and re-assess and consider which parts stand up to new evidence and examples.
This is not necessarily a critique “only” of Libertarian ideology, but “any” ideology when taken to the extreme, because ideology is a set of a priori defined principles that is trying to account for a messy, complex, and evolving world where violence is the ultimate veto on ideas that may resonate philosophically with respect to the individual.
America Is Close To Libertarian Ideals
If we consider that the opposite of a strong authoritarian State is not a weak and ineffectual State, nor the complete lack of State as in anarchy, but rather a “strong” State that works in favor of the great ideas like individual liberty and the tenets of core Natural Laws and Natural Rights like “Life, Liberty, and Pursuit of Happiness”, then we end up with a place like America.
America is not perfect, but the real world is messy and is not perfect.
Because America is so dominant as the world’s only superpower, it is unfairly compared to an unattainable Utopia and Platonic ideal, rather than reality in other countries, places, and times in human history.