Anarchy vs. Minarchy: Is There Really A Difference?

In the long-established debate that exists between folks who want no government (anarchists) and folks who want “limited” government (minarchists), has it ever been proven that both sides are in fact advocating for different things?

I have long been skeptical of the claim that minarchists and anarcho-capitalists (“ancaps”) have wildly divergent views on government.

Ideologically, minarchists and laissez faire anarchists descend from similar or the same origin points. Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard are the leading intellectuals whose fans have gone on to be both minarchists and/or anarchists. Even though they differ greatly in their proposed governmental structures, they arrive to their conclusions via the same road: the non-aggression principle (NAP). Given the NAP is so clear in its meaning, it seems odd that people could read so heavily into the idea and derive irreconcilable differences as a result.

Rand & Rothbard On NAP

Rand proposes a “minarchy,” where government’s role is to monopolize the use of retaliatory force. According to her, this means that the government’s role is limited to national defense, a legal system, and a police force.

Rothbard says that government is an evil which has no place in a free society, and that even basic governmental structures such as the military, courts, and police, ought to be fully privatized.

How Different Are These Views, Really?

Rand claims that a government is needed in order to prevent “might makes right” kind of systems. She was disdaindful of anarchy because she believed it was a recipe for totalitarian or force-based ruling mechanisms.

On the other “extreme,” we have Rothbard who proposed that minarchy comes about precisely because of this forceful “taking” of power - that no government can escape the fact that it was founded on the premise of initiating voilence.

If we carry these two proposals to their natural conclusions, though, they seem to look inescapably similar to one another. If we accept that a totally ancap society would still need laws that govern people’s behavior, a defense service to protect from outside aggression, etc., we must ask how these solutions will come about if not by the express consent of the people who would be provided these “government-like” rules and services. Will people pay for these services with their time, effort, or finances? Of course, they must accept some form of money, otherwise what action will these services be able to take in the first place on behalf of their “customers”? But then we must ask: how does this differ from taxation?

Rand’s solution to a small, limited government was to allow citizens to provide donations to the government - not to force people to pay their taxes, but rather to provide a better service to citizens in the hope that this would inspire them to support their government’s actions with voluntary funds. I am not so sure about the efficacy of this theory, because it would result in a second form of “voting” by the citizenry, getting rid of the possibility for an electoral system of representative Republicanism. Rand did not provide an answer to this critique, but also did not necessarily endorse the voluntary funding system, either.

Surface-Level Differences

The argument between minarchists and anarchists seems to largely consist of what these two groups believe the “ideal” government would be in a vacuum. Because the argument consists of what the ideal system would “look like” rather than what it will take to get there, both camps miss the point.

In order for any actual society to become an actual “ancap” society, it will require a total reboot of governmental infrastructure, as well as the “consent” of the “governed.” Whether the governed are seen as citizens or as customers is mostly irrelevant when it comes to the way that actual issues of justice and property rights are handled in such a society. Because the NAP propels both camps’ views, the agencies estalbished in the night-watchman state and in the ancap society would be bound to the same basic ethics.

Is It All Rooted In Metaphysics?

Moshe Kroy from The Mises Institute suggests that this debate is a result of irreconcilable differences between how Rand and Rothbard understood metaphysics. Though Rand’s 19th century approach to metaphysics does differ radically from Rothbard’s post-modern take, the issue of metaphysics is not very relevant to any exploration of this topic once it enters the realm of reality.

In reality, these societies will be built only after much societal upheaval, and that reality is all that matters when it comes to the practical steps a society must take to arrive at minarcy/anarchy. The steps that would have to be taken for any functioning society to morph into an anarchist or minarchist one is so extreme and frought with direct action that the metaphysical roots of those actions are an intellectual distraction.

Let Us Not Overthink

Instead of going deeper into the certainties of both sides of this debate, my preferred approach is to zoom out and look at the eventualities of both strategies. Libertarians cannot be blamed for sometimes (though not frequenly) over-abstracting an important issue to the point where differences are only identified due to their possible metaphysical incompatibilities. After all, metaphysical inconsistency is a favored attack strategy of the libertarian when debating a non-sympathetic opponent.

But when the opponent is actually on your side and agrees with your basic ethical premises, it is worth asking why there exists any argument in the first place. Perhaps Rand and Rothbard are more reconcilable than previously realized. I know that if Objectivists and Ancaps could get along, there’d be wondrous political opportunities on the horizon.