Classical Liberalism versus Anarchism

Over at the Independent Institute’s blog, Robert Higgs criticizes classical liberalism from an anarchist perspective. He writes that he can understand why one would become a classical liberal – someone who favors liberty and believes that government can be limited and help protect that liberty. In fact, he became a classical liberal more than 40 years ago. But what he does not understand is why classical liberals remain so rather than rejecting government entirely:

My difficulty arises not so much from a dissatisfaction with government’s being charged with protecting the citizens from force and fraud, but from a growing conviction that government (as we know it) does not, on balance, actually carry out these tasks and, worse, that it does not even try to carry them out except in a desultory and insincere way—indeed, as a ruse.

Truth be told, government as we know it never did and never will confine itself to protecting citizens from force and fraud. In fact, such government is itself the worst violator of people’s just rights to life, liberty, and property. For every murder or assault the government prevents, it commits a hundred. For every private property right it protects, it violates a thousand. Although it purports to suppress and punish fraud, the government itself is a fraud writ large—an enormous engine of plunder, abuse, and mayhem, all sanctified by its own “laws” that redefine its crimes as mere government activities—a racket protected from true justice by its own judges and its legions of hired killers and thugs.

Let’s assume that Higgs is correct – that government is the worst violator of rights. What is strange is that Higgs seems to be missing an essential step in his argument. He does not discuss what the world would look like in the absence of government. My guess is that most classical liberals believe that, however bad government may behave in the real world, an anarchist world would be even worse. 

Now, perhaps Higgs would disagree with this belief of classical liberals, but it seems noteworthy that he omits mentioning the belief. To the classical liberal, this would seem to be the key issue. Alternatively, Higgs may not necessarily disagree, but instead believe that government action that invades individual rights should not be endorsed, even if leads to fewer rights violations, because there are Nozickian side constraints about rights. (In other words, he does not favor minimizing rights violations, but simply argues that entities should not violate rights.) Or perhaps Higgs believes both of these things.

Even though I believe actual governments regularly take harmful actions — and this includes governments in the freest and most prosperous countries – I also believe it is very likely that the absence of government would be worse. Whether I am right or wrong, however, to me that is the question.

Mike Rappaport

Professor Rappaport is Darling Foundation Professor of Law at the University of San Diego, where he also serves as the Director of the Center for the Study of Constitutional Originalism. Professor Rappaport is the author of numerous law review articles in journals such as the Yale Law Journal, the Virginia Law Review, the Georgetown Law Review, and the University of Pennsylvania Law Review. His book, Originalism and the Good Constitution, which is co-authored with John McGinnis, was published by the Harvard University Press in 2013.  Professor Rappaport is a graduate of the Yale Law School, where he received a JD and a DCL (Law and Political Theory).

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  1. Jardinero1 says

    It’s not hard to do the math. In the 20th century, state actors and state action killed more people than non-state actors, destroyed more property than non-state actors, and took more property than non-state actors. Those are the facts.

    You hypothesize “however bad government may behave in the real world, an anarchist world would be even worse.” Maybe or maybe not. Given the carnage of the 20th century, the anarchist world have a tough standard for violence to match.

    Most of the garden variety, individual violence, theft and vandalism is not currently prevented by state action. The absence of the state wouldn’t necessarily mean more, maybe less. One might posit that there might be less individual violence, theft and vandalism if free actors were allowed to defend themselves as they see fit. Much individual violence, the drug war, et al, is the direct result of state action.

  2. says

    Abolishing those institutions that we typically think of as “government” will not result in anarchy. Those institutions will instead be replaced by the authorities to be found in the tribe, the clan and the gang. It is part of human nature to be social and to collude in creating and recognizing the distinct entities of power, authority, influence and brute force. Human nature contains socializing instincts that will always organize groups of individuals to one degree or another. Higgs errs when he considers that anarchy is some sort of default, rather than an anomaly, like aphasia.

    Higgs makes a more subtle error as well. It has never been the case that “protecting citizens from force and fraud” is something that government can do exclusively, or should do even if it could. Government may conduce to an environment that is more secure in a general way, or that may provide recourse for civil wrongs, but this is not the same as providing a comprehensive protection against anything. This is especially so when citizens have the liberty to see after their own affairs; such a circumstance is incompatible with giving government the authority, information and presence necessary to provide “protection” without doing violence to liberty and human dignity. When government tries to do things that it cannot actually do, bad things usually happen.


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