Are Libertarians Anti-Government?

David Boaz, Executive Vice President of the Cato Institute, answers this question in a well-timed reposting of an excellent older piece from the Cato Policy Report.  In it, Boaz argues that “libertarians are not, in any serious sense, ‘anti-government.'”  Instead, libertarians favor “a limited government that attends to its necessary and proper function.”  Or more specifically, Boaz argues:

Libertarians generally support a government formed by the consent of the governed and designed to achieve certain limited purposes. Both the form of government and the limits on its powers should be specified in a constitution, and the challenge in any society is to keep government constrained and limited so that individuals can prosper and solve problems in a free and civil society.  Thus libertarians are not “anti-government.” Libertarians support limited, constitutional government—limited not just in size but, of far greater importance, in the scope of its powers.

I am largely in agreement with Boaz’s main point here.  Indeed, I have frequently argued in the past that libertarians should want a strong (in terms of “state capacity”) but very limited (in terms of what the state does) government.  A government that is not all that limited in terms of its ends threatens tyranny.  Unfortunately, there are many examples of such states.  But a government that has little state capacity will not be able to accomplish its proper role of securing itself and the property rights (broadly understood) of its citizens against both foreign and domestic threats.  See many failed states such as Somalia and Afghanistan, as well as the numerous states in history that have failed to build sufficient forces to deter or defend against foreign enemies.

But…….

This understanding means that libertarianism is an explicitly “statist” political theory.  I’m comfortable with that – though it means I can’t have fun by jeering my leftist friends as “statists.”

However, Boaz’s point isn’t completely accurate given that there are rival specifications of libertarianism.  Indeed, I’ve been sneered at in the past by many self-described libertarians who argue that libertarianism includes anarchists or is properly a form of anarchism (and thus I should call myself a classical liberal instead of a libertarian).  Moreover, Boaz’s own collection of libertarian writings, titled The Libertarian Reader, includes a piece by Lysander Spooner – an “anti-government” anarchist.

So if some libertarians are anarchists and given that anarchists are anti-government, this broader tent libertarianism would have both “pro-government” and “anti-government” wings – thus complicating Boaz’s story.

But back to Boaz and why he wrote (and reposted) his piece in the first place.  Boaz wants average folks  – often confused by the binary and simplistic talk of the media – to understand that libertarians are not to be misidentified as or lumped in with racists or terrorists who want to use violence against other groups within society or against the U.S. government.  Well, his point here is correct for us “statist” libertarians – but it is also true for all of the “anti-government” anarcho-capitalists I’ve met through the years.  They seek peaceful change or wish to be benignly ignored.  Moreover, they despise racism as a collectivist and anti-individualist view.  And they certainly aren’t interested in using violence against other innocent citizens since that would violate their core non-coercion principle.

So, it is possible that being “anti-government” alone isn’t all that bad and so maybe we should focus on simply educating people that the larger problem with some current “anti-government” types is that they are stupid racists or terrorists?  Maybe.  But given that the media likes to tell simple Manichean stories  – and that people rationally utilize heuristics – Boaz is probably right to try and distance libertarianism from the “anti-government” tag even if some libertarians would contest his definition of the term.

Lastly, I will note that I would prefer that libertarianism be distinguished sharply from anarchism, even so-called libertarian anarchism or anarcho-capitalism.  It is much more analytically useful to do so since the issue of the philosophical legitimacy of the state is at the heart of the debate between these two and separates them into political and anti-political theories.

12 thoughts on “Are Libertarians Anti-Government?

  1. I agree with Damon. Nice. I was pondering the same exact things after reading Boaz’s piece. Like any attempt to categories complex social organizations, it comes up short, but I understood Boaz’s position the same way, an attempt to distance libertarianism from the negative aspects of some anti-government groups.

  2. Thanks Crawdad. Boaz is a smart guy so my guess is that he understands this and just had a different aim in mind for the piece. Welcome to Pileus!

  3. Hmm, I managed to miss both your and Boaz’s pieces in April, which nicely tackle this important issue. I’m glad I missed them until now though, since their succinctness might have dissuaded me from writing on this at length recently (http://tinyurl.com/2bnko7r) where I concurred with the Classical Liberal / libertarian “statist” position.

    The philosophical position about the state is indeed the main point, which seems to be that Classical Liberals/ “libertarian statists” think something specific is needed to secure “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and that something is a small, highly focused, highly limited, constitutional, republican (i.e. both in the senses of “shared law of the people” and of the “government by elected representatives”) government. While anarchists think securing such will come about by the removal of a monopoly on law and force. (That is my understanding of anarchy in its essence, though I welcome correction and/or clarification.)

    Actually, in considering the problem I found, both positions surprisingly hard to argue for, given (for the “statist” case) the illiberal track record of government, and for the anarchist position, the illiberal track record of lack of government and the inherently postulative/predictive nature of their claim.

  4. Libertarians of the anarchist persuasion are not anti-government, they are anti-state. It is a real distinction. Self-government and voluntary government are both consistent with anarchism, in the same way that “small” government is consistent with minarchism.

    Personally, I am anti-state, but because I still value law, order, peace, and justice, government is to me as yet a good thing.

    Obviously, self-government amounts to no government, but this has more to do with personal preference (as in most people who prefer self-government don’t think those under voluntary government are statists) than a consistent ideology.

    I agree with you that the terms anarchism and libertarianism should have different meanings, because they do, but that is not to say that some people aren’t consistently both or that as separate but compatible ideologies they don’t overlap.

    Incidentally “anarchism” was coined by someone (Pierre-Joseph Proudhon) who has much more in common with individualist anarchists and anarcho-capitalists than he did with communist or syndicalist anarchists, and “libertarianism” was coined by a critic (Joseph Dejacque)of his for his early version of anarcho-communism. It is amazing how perceptions of language change.

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