Classical liberals have long debated whether they should support a minimal state or no state at all. Unfortunately that debate is usually framed as an all-or-nothing proposition. Either you believe that “a minimal state is everywhere and always necessary” or that a “state everywhere and always does more harm than good.” This polarization is a mistake. Everyone, at least sometimes, is an anarchist.
Consider Cambodia in the late 1970s. The Khmer Rouge government intentionally killed more than two million of its own citizens. That’s an average of 8 percent of the population killed each year while government simultaneously inflicted countless other horrors. Do you think the Cambodian people, faced with that government, would have been better off with no government at all? Congratulations. You are, sometimes, an anarchist.
The anarchist-minarchist debate usually revolves around how well an ordered anarchy could work. How well could law and order be provided without State provision? That is an important question—one that Murray Rothbard, David Friedman, and James Buchanan made important theoretical contributions to in the 1970s. Bruce Benson and others started making historical contributions in the 1980s. And starting in the late 1990s, scholarship on the question virtually exploded.
Reasonable classical liberals can digest this scholarship and disagree about how well an “ordered anarchy” might work. But whether you cling to Hobbesian notions of a nasty, brutish, and short life in anarchy, or believe anarchy would be libertarian paradise, you have answered only half of the question about anarchy’s desirability. The other half of the question is, “Compared to what government”?
The usual debate involves contrasting a set of beliefs about what anarchy would be like with some version of a minimal state. But nowhere in the world do we observe a pure classical-liberal minimal state. So comparing a belief about anarchy to an unrealized ideal leaves us in the land of irrelevance.
The real issue is found in an area economists call “comparative institutions.” That is, in a specific time and place, how well would anarchy work and how does that compare to how well an actual obtainable state would work? Here the relevant comparison is between an imperfect state and an imperfect anarchy.
This question is not altered by whether one grounds his classical liberalism in utilitarian or natural rights premises. It only changes what measures you compare and what you mean by “works.” If you’re a classical liberal for utilitarian reasons you should prefer whatever system of governance would maximize utility—or, more likely, wealth—in a given situation.
If you’re a classical liberal for natural rights reasons you should prefer whichever system minimizes rights violations (however you might quantify this). Natural rights anarchists don’t avoid this question by asserting that a state necessarily and systematically violates rights. No system will perfect human morality. And, because it is costly to monitor and prevent deviant behavior, some such behavior will exist under any governance system. So even a well-functioning anarchy would still have rights violations. The question remains one of comparative institutions.
Cases like Pol Pot’s Cambodia are easy calls for most of us. It would take extraordinary Hobbesian assumptions about life without a state to think that Cambodians were better off with his government than they would have been without a state at all. The Chinese under Mao, Russians under Stalin, Germans under Hitler—they all fall in the same category.
The real question is how far to move the line. Somalia had a fairly predatory state until its collapse in 1991, but it wasn’t nearly as murderous as those above. It’s been in a state of anarchy since then. To the extent we can measure them, living standards seem to have improved since the state collapsed. In fact, they’ve improved faster than the sub-Saharan African average.
When classical liberals talk about Somalia it is not because it represents some ideal libertarian anarchy. It doesn’t. We talk about Somalia because it passes the comparative institutions test. Its imperfect anarchy seems to be doing better than the very imperfect state that preceded it and many of those states it shares a continent with.
This does not prove that a limited minimal government wouldn’t work better in Somalia. But that is not the relevant question. As I argued in response to a bunch of nation-builders at a conference on Somalia a couple of years ago: Whatever version of a government you think is ideal, it is probably not achievable in Somalia.
Consider other African governments today. Most brutally suppress the freedom of their subjects and have horrible standards of living. Check out their Polity IV scores on how liberal/democratic they are, or their economic freedom scores. How many of them, like Somalia, would be better off stateless?
Some classical liberals, particularly those living around DC’s beltway, shun discussions of anarchism because they believe such discussions are not “policy relevant.” They seem to think that because no one is going to abolish the U.S. government tomorrow, discussions of anarchy are purely academic. Once we appreciate that the anarchism/miniarchism question is not simply an all-or-nothing proposition, anarchism becomes policy relevant.
Exporting better systems of government to poorer, more totalitarian countries has a horrible success rate. But U.S. aid is often all that props up these “failing” states in poorer parts of the world. If you believe that the citizens of some of these failing states would be better off in anarchy than with their current governments, then cutting aid and letting their States fail is a more realistic policy option than improving their governments.
Although we have historical cases and modern, less-developed countries as examples of how anarchism has worked compared to the relevant alternatives, we lack a modern, wealthy, stateless society to which to compare governments like that of the United States. Instead, scholarly debates about these situations are theoretical or involve extrapolating from “slices of anarchism” that occur within the shadow of the state today, such as international trade without state enforcement. In these situations we are less certain of how desirable any anarchy would be compared to the current state of affairs.
Classical liberals who typically label themselves anarchists believe that modern societies would function better without the state, while those who label themselves minarchists believe the opposite. That debate falls outside the scope of this essay.
Instead, it is my hope that classical-liberal minarchists will drop the label and realize that in many current situations, in other parts of the globe, they may prefer anarchy to any obtainable state. Furthermore, as classical liberals who are interested in a free and prosperous society, we should recognize that further study of anarchism is a valuable endeavor because it can inform where each of us believes we should draw the line in preferring no state at all to ones we live under. In short, all classical liberals should be interested in the study of the “A word.”