What is the correct size and proper function of the state? Pt II

Following on from Part I which we published yesterday, this second part of Detlev Schlichter’s continues to look at the Libertarian view of the size and function of state.

The welfare state is something many individuals question when they first consider libertarianism. Below Detlev begins part two by outlining the ethical case against the welfare state.

The ethical case against the welfare state

The argument has so far been based on utilitarian considerations. But we can base it also on theories of ethics and justice. We have argued that a state that confines itself to the protection of person and property of its citizens against any unprovoked acts of aggression bases its right to legal force on the rights to such force by its individual members. The state assumes no privileged position but simply exercises the rights that the individual citizen already has but that the citizen may consider to be secured and enforced better through a state organization. This view, however, is no longer tenable when the state enforces redistribution of income and property.

While it is certainly within generally accepted principles of justice if I use proportional force to stop my neighbor from stealing or damaging my property or from inflicting injury on me or anybody in my family, it is certainly outside the established norms of justice if I decided to force my neighbor to support third parties, chosen by me, who I think are deserving of my neighbor’s support. By making ‘social justice’ its goal, the state claims a right to legal force that none of its citizens has. The state has now become a law upon itself, a ‘higher’ entity whose standards of right and wrong no longer correspond to those of its individual citizens. Any idea that the state could simply represent a convenient and efficient pooling of individual rights for the purpose of their better protection is now untenable. The state can do and does what nobody outside the state can do. The state qua state defines its own notions of morality and forces them upon its citizens.

We have now explained why any state that assumes larger responsibilities than the minimal state which confines itself to articulating, clarifying and enforcing the rights of its individual citizens to their own life and property must be in violation of its citizens’ rights to their own life and property and can no longer justify its existence on the basis of any ‘social contract’, for such a contract can only ever encompass the rights that individuals already have and which they may then voluntarily transfer to the state entity as part of entering such a contract. We have also seen that a state that gets involved in the distribution of income and property among its citizens must undermine the institution of private property, which is essential for human cooperation in a market economy and the basis of any prosperous society.

From classical liberalism to anarcho-libertarianism

While such a minimal state – a pure protector of life and property of its citizens, an enforcer of laws and a provider of courts to facilitate the resolution of conflicts and the further development of the laws – would be a much better guarantor of individual liberty and of peaceful cooperation than today’s heavily interventionist, constantly meddling and increasingly authoritarian state, and while most libertarians today would be happy to see a return to this classical liberal vision of the minimal state, even this concept is still flawed for as long as the organization that calls itself a state claims to have a territorial monopoly on providing protection and security services and a monopoly of ultimate decision making in its territory (this is in fact a very good definition of the state by Hans-Hermann Hoppe). If the state not only uses legal force to protect life and property of its citizens but if the state, as all states presently do, uses force to stop citizens from voluntarily exiting the state’s framework and establishing or joining different and competing arrangements on its territory, then we will have to also reject this minimal state on the basis of the analysis above.

First, again, are utilitarian considerations. Providing security services also necessitates the use of scarce resources. How many resources are to be allocated to providing security, which resources should be used and to what extent, are essential questions. Without private property, market prices and free entry into the market of security provision, the results will again be far from optimal. Even in the area of security provision, market-based solutions are undoubtedly superior. This important argument was first developed by the 19th century Belgian economist, Gustave de Molinari.

Second, we have considerations of ethics and justice. If the state claims to derive its legitimacy to use force from the individual citizen’s right to use force to defend his own life and property, this must mean that the individual’s rights are the origin of the state’s rights, and that the latter can never supercede the former. To put this differently, a state that claims a territorial monopoly on security provision and conflict resolution must argue that the individual who had the right to use force for defence of life and property in the first place has, by pooling these rights into a state-like organization, now forfeited these rights forever and is not to be permitted to reclaim these rights and enforce them by alternative means. This is logically an untenable position.

It seems fair to assume that law and security provision have a lot in common with money in that they, too, are subject to network effects. Just as the co-existence of many parallel monies is suboptimal, the co-existence of many different legal frameworks and security arrangements is inefficient. But none of this means that individuals have not the right to make alternative arrangements if they deem present arrangements to be insufficient or even a threat to their own life and property. We conclude that at a very minimum the minimal state must concede a universal and inviolable right of every individual or group of individuals to secede at any time.

A lot of what I argued above may appear to many like idle libertarian theorizing with little relevance to present political reality. But a crisis of the present state fiat money system is now inevitable. This crisis is part of a broader crisis of the welfare state and, in fact, of democracy. As these crises unfold, people will again revisit some fundamental questions about the size and role of the state and its relationship to the individual. Against this backdrop, discussions like this one could become very relevant indeed. As states everywhere go broke, as the promises of the cradle-to-grave welfare state are defaulted on, and as politicians lose control over their overstretched fiat money empires, citizens will again consider looking for and establishing more suitable and functioning alternatives to present state apparatuses.

I will finish this easy with a short extract from Lysander Spooner’s outstanding pamphlet No Treason, NO II from 1867, in which he delivers a fascinating interpretation of the American constitution that is an excellent presentation of the points I was trying to make toward the end of the above essay. Here is Spooner:

The Constitution says:

‘We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.’

The meaning of this is simply: We, the people of the United States, acting freely and voluntarily as individuals, consent and agree that we will cooperate with each other in sustaining such a government as is provided for in this Constitution.

The necessity for the consent of “the people” is implied in this declaration. The whole authority of the Constitution rests upon it. If they did not consent, it was of no validity. Of course it had no validity, except as between those who actually consented. No one’s consent could be presumed against him, without his actual consent being given, any more than in the case of any other contract to pay money, or render service. And to make it binding upon any one, his signature, or other positive evidence of consent, was as necessary as in the case of any other contract. If the instrument meant to say that any of “the people of the United States” would be bound by it, who did not consent, it was a usurpation and a lie. The most that can be inferred from the form, “We, the people,” is, that the instrument offered membership to all “the people of the United States;” leaving it for them to accept or refuse it, at their pleasure.

The agreement is a simple one, like any other agreement. It is the same as one that should say: We, the people of the town of A━━, agree to sustain a church, a school, a hospital, or a theatre, for ourselves and our children.

Such an agreement clearly could have no validity, except as between those who actually consented to it. If a portion only of “the people of the town of A━━,” should assent to this contract, and should then proceed to compel contributions of money or service from those who had not consented, they would be mere robbers; and would deserve to be treated as such.

Neither the conduct nor the rights of these signers would be improved at all by their saying to the dissenters: We offer you equal rights with ourselves, in the benefits of the church, school, hospital, or theatre, which we propose to establish, and equal voice in the control of it. It would be a sufficient answer for the others to say: We want no share in the benefits, and no voice in the control of your institution; and will do nothing to support it.

One comment on “What is the correct size and proper function of the state? Pt II

  1. Morris8
    March 10, 2012 at 1:12 pm #

    Mao Tse Tung, (I think), said ” Power grows from the barrel of a gun”.
    Once a population has agreed to contract the legitimate use of force out to “the state” how, in practice, can an individual or smaller group reclaim this rights? The US constitution offers a route, but nothing in the UK does so!

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