*Written by Benjamin Powell.
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 eight 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 only answered half 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.
CONTINUED at FEE.