August 28, 2004 12:54 PM

What is the Role of the State?

As it turns out, I am not the sort who believes the State is a necessary institution at all. However, many libertarians do think that a minimal State is useful. (This is sometimes termed a "night watchman" State).

Turn your mind, for the moment, to the "state of nature", a philosophical construct that folks like Hobbes, Locke, and others considered in attempting to understand the proper role and form for governments. The "state of nature" is the world before laws, institutions or agreements of any sort.

Much of human activity is directed at producing and transforming resources for our use. We grow food to feed ourselves, and that takes work. We produce tools so that we can grow the food, and that also takes work. In the state of nature, each of us has to spend a substantial amount of our personal time guarding the resources we have developed. It is not enough to grow corn — one must also hold on to it long enough to eat it. However, spending one's time guarding one's resources means that one is not out producing more resources with that effort. Hobbes refers to this problem as the "war of all against all" — a situation in which no one can has security or can be productive.

Some thinkers argue that, since this situation is highly undesirable to everyone, people seek a way to correct it. We develop, implicitly or explicitly, a minimal social contract with our neighbors. This social contract is a simple truce: I give up on trying to steal the things you make, in exchange for your doing the same. I will not do violence to you so long as you do not do it to me. I will respect my agreements with you so long as you respect them as well. This truce allows us to halt the Hobbesian "war of all against all". Thus assured of personal safety for ourselves and our chattels, we can engage in commerce and the division of labor, resulting in a better life for everyone participating in the armistice. Those that violate the truce by engaging in violence or theft have little reason to complain about our treatment of them, because it is no different from what they have done to others.

The minimal State, then, is an arrangement to enforce this very basic social contract. It enforces agreements among the participants in the State (who we sometimes call citizens), defends them and their property, and does nothing more. (I would argue that it is possible to perform these activities without a State, but that is another discussion entirely.)

You might want to take note of the interconnection between purpose and action in the minimal State. The minimal State does not, for instance, build art museums, because it does not exist to promote art but to enforce agreements and provide mutual defense. In order to build an art museum, the State would need to acquire the resources with which to build it. If people are willing to donate those resources freely, there is no need for the State to build the museum — it could be built privately. If people are not willing to donate the resources freely, then the act of forcibly taking the needed resources turns the purpose of the minimal State on its head &mdash instead of enforcing the decision by the participants to respect each other's lives and property so that their own lives and property will be respected, the State then becomes an agent for some to abscond with the property of others. I may think it is a good idea to build a home for orphans, but if I take your resources against your will to do it, whether I'm an official of the State or a private citizen, I have violated the truce. To obey the truce, I must convince you to voluntarily provide resources for my goals, whether by trading with you or appealing to your charitable instincts.

In short, if the justification of the minimal State is that it exists, at the behest of a collection of sovereign individuals, to enforce a mutually beneficial truce among those who choose to participate in it, and to organize mutual defense against those who choose not to participate by violating the truce, then that justification does not reasonably permit the expropriation of resources for the purpose of projects that are merely laudable.

Note that this view of the minimal State cannot provide a justification for initiating warfare in distant lands which are not a threat its citizens' safety, regardless of how laudable it might be to re-arrange the social structures of those foreign places to suit enlightened tastes. However, by the same token, neither position prevents individuals from engaging in such activities on their own, at their own risk and with their own resources.

The view that I've just described is the so-called "minarchist" libertarian position. Note that it is not, in principle, very different than the anarcho-capitalist position that some libertarians take. The distinction is merely that the minarchists feel that a night watchman State is required to enforce the truce, and the anarcho-capitalists believe that the same function can be provided without a monopoly enforcement mechanism. However, both otherwise have nearly identical positions.

Posted by Perry E. Metzger | Categories: Politics