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After “Limited Government”, Then What?

November 9th, 2010

This is how I normally enter a discussion about the merits of “limited government”.

Is there really some baseline amount of violence and (admitted) imperfection which is necessary to keep the rest of us from going Mad Max?  In order to prevent crime we must empower a small group of criminals to perpetrate crimes (which is what they’d be if done by any other) and thereby protect us from ourselves?  Do you understand how ridiculous that sounds?

Being so “negative” all the time doesn’t make you welcome in political discussions.Suffice to say that I do not often enter such discussions, because I am usually deafened by the sound of cognitive dissonance.

A common objection is “So what! Governments aren’t perfect.  How will the dread anarchy perfectly resolve all of the problems at which government fails?”

This objection, aside from being a glorious example of shifting goalposts and double-standards, assumes that minarchism is pragmatically superior to any other social organization, and therefore should be praised for its practicality.  Then again, if we can’t come up with a foolproof system for something as relatively uncomplicated as roads then there is zero reason to believe that we can come up with anything even approaching a foolproof system for governance.

The designs of “limited government” are admirable, or at the very least more admirable than the machinations of those who seek omnipotent government.  But I disagree that they’re any more practical than totalitarianism, or pure anarchism or anywhere else on the spectrum of politics. You need only examine minarchism’s historical record with a critical eye to understand that it often gives rise to, or conceals some of humanity’s worst.

The paragon of limited government — colonial America — ruled over and permitted two of the most brutal institutions ever to scar this planet: human trafficking/chattel slavery and the genocide of American aboriginal people and the expropriation of their lands. Excuse me, but I do not find it particularly alarming, that this isn’t exactly the sort of movement that people are willing to rally behind.

But let’s say we get limited government to “work”. I suppose this means all of the good things about colonial America and none of the bad things like slavery, genocide, the disenfranchisement of women and/or non-landowners, etc. OK. Now what?

I’m not putting the cart before the horse. Assume we get there, first. Now what. Can’t we do better than that? Even just a little bit? At some point, the “limited government”, and the structure of social arrangements and institutions of community that would arise in the absence of the omnipotent State, becomes almost in-discernably different from “no government at all”.

I don’t necessarily believe in the “incrementalist” approach, but if followed it inevitably leads here. At that point, would we still be arguing about this? If you hold restrict, threaten, force us or hold us back, well then you’re no better than any of the evil “big governments” you previously opposed. But I don’t think it would come to that. At least I hope it wouldn’t.

And at that point if you let me go my way, well then, Salut! Comrade, you’re an anarchist. You just didn’t know it.

Comments

11 Comments

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  • John says on: November 10, 2010 at 12:46 pm

     

    In general, I support the “incrementalist” approach, both academically (debating/proselytizing online and in person) and practically (what I’d like to happen to government/economy/social freedom) in the future USA and every other country. When debating with actual libertarian-ish minarchists, I agree that we’re correct in actively promoting the philosophy of anarchism; they should know better by now. But because most of the world isn’t even close to minarchist, academic incrementalism and practical implementation of incrementalism might be useful and warranted.

    More specifically, what I mean by academic incrementalism is: I think it is more helpful to sway people towards a philosophy of freedom in small, comfortable, easy-to-handle bits than to tell them their entire worldview (and that of 95% of the human race) is wrong. Justified or not, that leads many people to lump you in with the Alex Jones types who say everything is a lie and a conspiracy. Keep in mind that many people’s objection to libertarian ideas is not based on their opposition to increases in freedom and their support of massive violations of rights–they don’t see libertarianism as “right” or “just” and don’t see State intrusions as intrusions at all. Therefore, it is difficult to get them to see that even cutting taxes, stopping inflation, not enacting more business regulations, etc., are helpful to people’s material well-being, much less that they are more philosophically just than the opposite policies. For this reason, they are likely to be swayed by arguments saying “a little less government would be better here” and to progressively support more and more reductions in government if the initial arguments are successful.

    And by practical incrementalism, more specifically, I mean that the collapse of a giant state and the sudden fracturing of society into pockets of anarchic and minarchic (and other) regions would be very jarring to most people, possibly in a way that is harmful both to the freedom movement and to people’s actual safety and well-being. Therefore, allowing people to see the benefits of low taxes and fewer regulations and fewer government handouts will lead them to support the complete absence of all those things. Or, at least, it will lead to people being free and able to opt out of monopolistic governance more easily and smoothly. At least, it seems like it should. It makes sense to me, as I’m sure you’ve heard before, that it’s a lot easier to go from very small government to no monopolistic government than it is to go from Leviathan State to no monopolistic government. That’s why I generally support the practical implementation of incremental decreases in State power.

    I don’t know whether or to what extent this conflicts with the approach that most libertarians call agorism. The way I and most other libertarians seem to use the term, agorism means gradually building “black-market” social and economic structures that don’t depend on and aren’t (directly) affected by the State and all its immoral laws. There are probably several reasons agorism is superior to a Libertarian Party–style incrementalism, not the least of which is that legal and “proper” reductions of State power are almost impossible to achieve in this day and age, so doing it illicitly is our only recourse.

    However, interestingly, agorism should itself be considered an incrementalist policy because gradually building economic and social connections that don’t require and don’t support the State, such that the State withers away and becomes irrelevant, is one way to implement the incremental changes that I talked about above. Also interestingly, successfully creating agorist social/economic structures (which, it must be admitted, is also nearly impossible on a large scale because of the police state we live in) doesn’t require that most participants have a firm philosophical commitment to anarcho-libertarianism. It just requires that they see the monetary benefit to operating out from under the heel of the State and act upon any illicit agorist opportunities they come across. This again should be considered incrementalist: recognize the benefit of not paying this tax or not following this regulation; recognize the benefits of more and more perfectly just and victimless “crimes”; recognize the moral justness of libertarianism.

  • David Z says on: November 10, 2010 at 1:56 pm

     

    +1

  • damaged justice says on: November 11, 2010 at 9:44 am

     

    Richard Nikoley offered all the answer to utilitarians and statists I ever need:

    “I have long ago lost any desire to explain how freedom would work better than slavery.”

  • Brad says on: November 11, 2010 at 11:52 am

     

    I enjoy listening to you get into discussions. Unfortunately, you make so much sense that people don’t know how to comprehend the things you say as we have been conditioned to not think on our own when it comes to Politics, Govt, Economics.

    I try to re-phrase my responses into a “I understand what you’re saying but what about when this happens” instead of “Look, (BO talk) your wrong.” This way you are not calling somebody a dumbass and getting them to think with you instead of against you.

  • Cryptoman says on: November 13, 2010 at 11:04 am

     

    I’m generally unimpressed these days when I hear arguments from Tea Party candidates stressing the need to return to limited, constitutional government. After all, it was within the framework of the Constitution (specifically, its malleability and the “general welfare” and interstate commerce clauses) that our current Leviathan government emerged. The Founders should have put the pen down after signing the Declaration of Independence. I agree with John that we can approach agorism from an incremental perspective and that this is probably the best way to proceed. Still, there’s likely to be a breaking point reached when the federal government is no longer able to care for its dependents and the able-bodied fraction thereof takes to the streets. How that moment is handled will be critical for the survival of liberty.

    Nice blog.

  • Don says on: November 13, 2010 at 8:18 pm

     

    The problem with the incrementalist approach is that principles cannot be incrementalized.
    Ex. Stealing a little bit of my property is still stealing, and if a little bit of stealing is OK then why not a lot?
    Further, why should I negotiate or compromise with a thief?
    What do I expect, you ask.
    Let me frame it like this: Life is not without risk but the intelligent person continuously tries to minimalize it. To avoid common thugs on the street I don’t go where they are known to be. To avoid gov’t thugs I avoid doing things that alert their attention. No, I don’t like living this way but I didn’t make the world, I’m just trying to live in it. It is what it is and I won’t pretend it ain’t.

  • Robert says on: November 14, 2010 at 8:01 am

     

    We have yet to see “the paragon ["the best possible example"] of limited government”, obviously, if it “ruled over and permitted two of the most brutal institutions ever to scar this planet”. We have, (to the best of my knowledge), never seen a government limited by the Law of Nature, the Natural Law (of man).

    The Natural Law (of man) “…is the science of peace; and the only science of peace; since it is the science which alone can tell us on what conditions mankind can live in peace, or ought to live in peace, with each other.” (http://jim.com/spooner.htm)

    “If a nation were founded on this basis, it seems to me that order would prevail among the people, in thought as well as in deed. It seems to me that such a nation would have the most simple, easy to accept, economical, limited, non-oppressive, just, and enduring government imaginable…” (http://www.constitution.org/law/bastiat.htm)

  • Linda says on: November 15, 2010 at 12:36 am

     

    Proposing a third way – “consent of the governed”. We don’t have that now, as evidenced by most officials being elected by a minority of the people. Even if it were a majority, that would still leave a minority who don’t consent. But a lot of people do want governments. They should be able to choose their own, but not force them on others.

    • David Z says on: November 15, 2010 at 12:06 pm

       

      consent of the governed is fine with me, as long as those who consent to be governed also allow me to opt out. Usually, this is not the case.

      • Don says on: November 15, 2010 at 12:23 pm

         

        *allow*?

        They never had your permission in the first place to opt you in.

        The US political process is a whole series of ASSumptions.

no third solution

Blogging about liberty, anarchy, economics and politics