in the defense of liberty

A reply to Randall Holcombe
Part One

Senior editor, The Last Ditch

I have written more than once that free-market anarchism was ascendant in the libertarian movement so long as its arguments were circulated and considered, and so long as attempts were made to meet them. It fell into despised obscurity only when libertarians quit thinking about it and deliberately shelved the arguments in order to attempt to advance their cause by various forms of political action. (Cf. my 1996 article "This government is illegitimate ... and you don't have to be an anarchist to see it.")

Comes now Randall G. Holcombe, a professor of economics at Florida State University, to argue that government is inevitable ("Government: Unnecessary but Inevitable" [PDF], The Independent Review, Winter 2004: 325-42). Indeed, he characterizes his as "the libertarian argument for a limited government."

(The Independent Review's home page is at www.independent.org/publications/tir.)

Holcombe takes the position of free-market anarchists seriously, but he does not meet their arguments. Rather, he is concerned to redirect the discussion away from a debate between their position (which he calls "orderly anarchy") and the defense of limited government, and into a discussion of "how government institutions can be designed to maximize their protection of liberty." (page 337)

His principal points are these:

1. That whether there is a government or not, people will have to find ways to protect themselves from predators.

2. That there is a natural progression from disorganized banditry to organized crime, and from organized crime to the state.

3. That free-market protection agencies have economic incentives to become predatory as a profit-maximizing strategy.

4. That government is therefore inevitable.

5. That some governments are less predatory than others.

6. And that therefore libertarians should focus their talents on discovering and promoting ways "to make government more libertarian." (p. 338)

In the course of making his argument, Holcombe also highlights what he considers a kind of logical impossibility in the functioning of free-market protection agencies.


It is necessary first to understand what Holcombe is not arguing.

First, he is most emphatically not arguing that there is anything that government can do better than the free market. He is even willing to concede this point, or at least not to challenge it. Indeed, he states, "The effectiveness of government versus that of private arrangements to produce goods and services is irrelevant to the issue of the desirability of government in a libertarian society." He states further that governments "are not created to produce goods and services for citizens. Rather they are created and imposed on people by force, most often for the purpose of transferring resources from the control of those outside government to the control of those within it."

That is quite an unusual starting place. One would almost expect such an opener to lead to anarchism rather than to limited-statism. Even if one exempts the United State from this analysis of the origins of the state — as Holcombe is willing to do for the sake of argument — it is still the case that the United State was not founded "to produce public goods or to control externalities or to prevent citizens from free riding on a social contract." (p. 328)

Second, Holcombe is not arguing that governments should exist: "Claims that government is immoral [as in Murray Rothbard's Ethics of Liberty] are not relevant to the issue of whether people should have government. If government is inevitably imposed on them by force, they have no choice." (p. 338, note 24)

It may be that Holcombe would allow that assertion to be modified; it is hard to imagine what is relevant to the question of whether people should have a government if claims that government is immoral are not relevant. Rather, what emerges from his discussion is just this: whether people should have a government is a pointless issue to debate; they will have governments, and the only real question that faces them is what to do about it.

In fact, after identifying two strands of libertarian anarchist argument — that whatever services government provides, the market can provide better, including national defense; and that "government is unethical because of its use of force" — he names Rothbard as the leading proponent of both; and though he discusses Rothbard's arguments for the first position, he never takes up the second one, except to call it irrelevant in a footnote.


Implicit in all my arguments against the existence of the state — and explicit in some of them — is the view that the state is immoral for precisely the reason that Holcombe states: its use of force. I will not review those arguments here, but Holcombe's dismissal of ethical considerations must not pass unexamined.

First of all, let us be individualists: to say that government is immoral is to say that some people are doing something that is immoral. If that is the case, then they should stop. Period. The anarchist position is not that there should not be an abstract, institutional entity that is called "government." It is that no men should rule others. They should not rob them. They should not murder them. They should not push them around. And that the men they propose to rob and murder and push around (i.e., the men they propose to rule) should not accede to being robbed, murdered, and pushed around.

Holcombe's position amounts to the admonition, "When you are being robbed, murdered, and pushed around, you have to realize that that is inevitable. So let's see how we can make the best of it."

The fundamental error in Holcombe's position is that it forgets that there are souls out there making up a government, souls that stand to be lost. It forgets that there are characters out there that are being sullied. It forgets that being a criminal is not a good thing for a man to be. When anarchists say that there should not be a government, we are not thinking merely of what is good for the ruled, but of what is good for the rulers also.

Holcombe's concedes that Rothbard's ethical arguments are "persuasive." (p. 327) Since he offers no refutation of them, let us see what follows if they are valid. If Rothbard and others are right that the state is unethical because it necessarily embodies the use of force against those who have committed no crimes, and if Holcombe is right that government is inevitable, then it follows that an unethical regime is inevitable.

For some readers, that may seem to be merely a realistic — sophisticated, if cynical, perhaps even manly — way of looking at the world. It may seem that all these ethical considerations and discussions of human or natural rights are just so much effete hot air. After all, that a man has a right to his property never protected that property when it was being stripped away.

I will not argue against that position. And I will stipulate that there can be no moral imperative to strive for a state of affairs that is impossible. I will merely ask that we call things by their right names. If we are hardy enough to be realists and to eschew "rights idealism," let us be hardy enough to eschew also euphemism. What Holcombe is saying is that the rule of some by criminals is inevitable.

If we accept that proposition, it certainly does follow that the fact that criminals are immoral is irrelevant to the discussion. What do criminals care about morality?

But then on what basis can we argue that criminals "should" recognize the rights of citizens? On what basis can we argue that criminals "should" behave justly? (What would it mean for criminals to behave justly?) On what basis can we argue that their exercise of power should somehow be limited or bound by rules?

Holcombe is ready with his answer: he states again and again that governments have an incentive to be less predatory than bandits or mafias, because under governments citizens will be more productive and there will be more both for them and for the predators to keep. (See, for example, p. 329: "States try to convince citizens that they will limit their take and that they will protect their citizens in order to provide an incentive for those citizens to produce.")

From which, Holcombe believes, it follows that "governments have an incentive to be less predatory than bandits or mafias." How anyone who has ever heard of the 20th century can make such a claim is simply beyond me.


But I have forgotten myself: I was insisting that Holcombe and other realists drop this silly talk of government altogether. What they are accepting — by their claim that the objection that government is immoral is itself irrelevant — is unethical rule. Let us call it rule by criminals.

Just what is the difference between the mafias Holcombe mentions and the state? It apparently has nothing to do with legitimacy, because "legitimacy" is a concept derived from ethical principles. And ethical principles are to be irrelevant to this discussion. Once bandits have become mafias, they have "every incentive to move from operating as bandits to operating as states because bandits cannot guarantee themselves a long-term flow of income."

The difference has to do with something else: "States try to convince citizens that they will limit their take and that they will protect their citizens." Well, that doesn't sound quite like the way the pharaohs or the Roman emperors conducted business. It's doubtful that any scholar could cite the pitch Rameses III or Octavius made to convince people that he would limit his take and protect his citizens. If one has been paying attention to George W. Bush's speeches, it doesn't seem to be the way he is conducting business, either.

No, it is not the pitch that turns a mafia into a state. And Holcombe does not imagine that it is. He tells us what it is: "If the mafias become even better organized, they can establish themselves as a state." It's organization that makes a mafia out of bandits, and it's organization that makes a state out of mafias.

So, because we are realists, let us no longer give exalted titles to rulers, such as "president," or "senator," or "governor." Let us call them "boss," or "capo," or even "don." Or let us draw from the Romans, who let a family name become a title, and call them Capones. Capone Bush. Capone Clinton. Even Capone Washington.

Let us not hold them in high esteem, but rather in contempt and fear, disguised as respect only for the sake of the safety of our families.

Let us not hold them in awe of any sort; let us teach our children what they truly are: criminals whose organized rule we must accept because it is inevitable. Such teaching would help us never to forget what Holcombe himself urges time after time: that "governments are imposed on people by force, most often for the purpose of transferring resources from one group to another."

This realism about this inevitable organization, this supermafia, leads Holcombe eventually to say that "in the real world" (p. 338 — as an aside, I urge all who would be free to strap on their laser weapons whenever they hear an apologist for the state begin a political argument with the words "in the real world") some criminal organizations are worse than others, are more predatory than others; and therefore "there is no real-world libertarian alternative but to work to make government more libertarian." (p. 338) That is, there is no real-world pro-freedom alternative but to work to make organized crime more pro-freedom.

Yet Holcombe acknowledges that "there may be no final answer to the question of how to design the ideal government [i.e., "criminal organization," per the foregoing] because any innovations in government designed to protect the rights of individuals may prompt offsetting innovations by those who want to use government for predatory purposes." (p. 338)

Let us remember that Holcombe is an advocate of limited government. One naturally infers that he is talking about how one writes a constitution or writes laws or designs some other institutions for limiting criminality so that it is not used for predatory purposes. But not so fast. His argument that government is inevitable implies no such thing.

Perhaps the best way to preserve a set of liberties in the face of inevitable organized predation is not to do any of those things at all. Perhaps the best way to preserve a set of liberties is for a bunch of people to seize control of the gang and do things their way, for reasons of their own. Since offsetting innovations may be prompted no matter what the Libertarian Founders of the Ideal Government ("ideal criminal gang") do, maybe the best that libertarians can do is just foment revolution, take over, and rule with gentle hands. (That may be the only argument that would make sense of the Libertarian Party's efforts.)

After all, we have the inevitability of illegitimate rule. We have the possibility that no institutions to limit criminal rule can work over time. Maybe all we can hope for is the temporary but benign rule of libertarians — "Freedom in our time," and all that.


But it is time to get a little more serious here. If we are really going to eschew questions of whether government ought to exist, if we are really stuck with the empirical "real-world" fact that government is inevitable, what should we do?

Nothing. That is, nothing follows along the lines of an answer to "what should we do?" That is because there are no normative terms in the premises. If there is no normative term in the premises, there can be no normative term in the conclusion.

That is a point that Murray Rothbard drew on over and over, and it is one that economists keep forgetting: In order to draw some ethical conclusion about what you should do, you have to have some ethical principles to start with. Value-free economics is good economics, but it has no policy applications. For that, you have to have some goals or principles. As an example, if government is inevitable, Holcombe wants to say that we "should" therefore seek to have the kind of government that permits the greatest prosperity for the ruled.

In short, he is saying that libertarians should become part of the criminal gang that will inevitably rule. But why should anyone become a criminal? When we are faced with criminals "in the real world," normally we do not try to protect ourselves from them by joining the gang and attempting to subvert it from within. Why is this more-organized criminal gang different?

In insisting that the morality of the existence of government is irrelevant, Holcombe has — whether he meant to or not — thrown away moral arguments altogether. Surely we cannot know what we should do with respect to governments if we do not know whether governments are good things that should exist. If we think that they are wicked things that should not exist, will that not influence our decisions about what we should do in order to protect property rights? (And how will anyone be able to discuss property rights outside questions of the morality of force?)

For that matter, why is maximizing prosperity the sort of thing that libertarians should be looking to do with respect to this government? In the classic case for limited government, governments are instituted to secure our liberties. There is surely a relation between liberty and prosperity, but liberty and prosperity are not the same thing.

Moreover, material prosperity is not the only good that people care about. If criminal rule is inevitable, it follows that some abridgement of our liberties is inevitable. Which should be more important? securing what liberties we can or our material prosperity? Perhaps what libertarians should strive for is to keep overthrowing governments, assassinating all government officials, until they are all recognized only as bandits, even if that course would have a negative effect on prosperity. Maybe it is better for people to live poor, but as men, than to live prosperous, but as sheep. Maybe instead of trying to come up with institutions that recall "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," libertarians should try to come up with agreements that recall "The Magnificent Seven." Maybe we should stop comparing government officials to Don Corleone, and instead see in them Eli Wallach's bandit, Calvera.

Once we say that the morality of government is irrelevant, there is no basis for saying that people should put up with one. It does not follow that people should want to be ruled by a criminal gang that allows them to keep more of what they produce, but withal forces them to hand over more than any bandit could have ever taken. This is the error of Milton Friedman (whom Holcombe mistakenly lists at the beginning of his article as a defender of limited government): to assume that streamlining government increases one's freedom. It may be — in the world where government is inevitable — that what freedom calls for is not rulers who are just and wise, but rulers who are stupid, who are simple crooks unable to concoct schemes for stealing 30 percent of your income every year for your entire life. Maybe what freedom calls for is the Gang That Can't Think Straight. (If governments have an incentive to be less predatory than bandits, Milton Friedman's withheld income tax provides slight evidence for it.)

Can Holcombe's argument be saved? Can we insert the premise "Prosperity is the supreme value" and get Holcombe's plan to try to limit government?

I don't see how. We would need more than that.

Maybe the political road to prosperity is theocracy, wherein we shall be governed by priests who propitiate fertility gods. You know, as long as they permit free trade.

Maybe the political road to prosperity is benevolent dictatorship, with a rule of succession by adoption (like the Antonines).

The only thing that seems really to matter in this argument is that government — our ruling crime family — not be too intrusive, and that it stay that way for a long time.

It is clear that some political theory — more or less conventional — is operating in the back of Holcombe's mind. He is not about to suggest that the best institution for limiting government is for all government officials to be forced to commit suicide after five years in office. He is not about to suggest that the families of government officials be held hostage, to be hanged if measures deemed too intrusive are enacted.

No, rather he wants to limit the discussion to "the libertarian issue regarding government," to wit, "whether a society with no government has the means to prevent predators from establishing one by force."

And to that I shall now turn.

February 17, 2004

To be continued.

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