A PDF version of A Penrose Stairway is available here.

A Penrose Stairway: Why the Free Market
and Limited Government Are Incompatible,

by Ronald N. Neff

Table of Contents for A Penrose Stairway

December 3, 2016


Prologue to Part I

Jacob Hornberger and the Case for Limited Government


JACOB HORNBERGER IS THE FOUNDER and president of the Future of Freedom Foundation. Founded in 1989, it is an educational organization whose mission is

to advance freedom by providing an uncompromising moral and economic case for individual liberty, free markets, private property, and limited government.

In its flagship publication, formerly Freedom Daily, now Future of Freedom, it has been fairly consistent in opposing expansions of the state, and in arguing for the merits of limited government, particularly limited government as exemplified by the U.S. Constitution. Hornberger recognizes many of the Constitution's shortcomings, but is nevertheless enthusiastic about its merits. In a recent essay, he compared it to a sea wall that protects a community from being flooded by tidal waves.

Notice the phrase “uncompromising moral and economic case.” Hornberger means it. Whereas from time to time he takes positions that other libertarians perhaps think are mistaken, such occasions do not result from any effort or intention on his part to compromise with those he thinks are wrong. Rather, they are genuine differences of opinion about the application of the non-aggression principle.

It is for those reasons that I wish to undertake a critique of his recent six-part essay, “Why I Favor Limited Government.” I do not consider that his arguments are the best that can be marshaled for the limited state, but they represent an effort by a principled libertarian to make the case without compromising the principles of the free market or other expressions of natural rights and liberty. And it is possible there are those who are persuaded by them.

Unfortunately, Hornberger’s effort nowhere takes up the issue of legitimacy. Nowhere does he present what would seem to be a moral case for limited government, uncompromising or otherwise. He does not tell us how a government can be legitimate, or how it can become legitimate if it is not. The omission is somewhat puzzling, given the mission statement quoted above: “uncompromising moral and economic case for ... limited government.” He also does not explain to us why he does not attempt to present that moral case. His case is based, rather, almost entirely on utilitarian considerations, though it is clear from his other writings that he is not a Utilitarian.

And because he does not take up the issue of legitimacy, he has failed to notice any number of ways in which his limited government intrudes into the free market. I will be pointing those out as we proceed. Nevertheless, some of his considerations and arguments present a useful point of departure for discussing common misunderstandings of free-market anarchism. For readers who wish to read other, much fuller presentations and defenses of free-market anarchism, I direct them to Murray N. Rothbard, Power and Market; Morris and Linda Tannehill, The Market for Liberty; Richard and Ernestine Perkins, Precondition for Peace and Prosperity: Rational Anarchy; and perhaps David Friedman, The Machinery of Freedom, though that work dwells almost entirely on economic considerations cast in the Chicago school of economics style of arguing. As of this writing, all of those books are in print.

The most important works for the moral case for free-market anarchism are Murray N. Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty (in print), and two essays by Roy A. Childs, “Objectivism and the State: An Open Letter to Ayn Rand” and “The Epistemological Basis for Anarchism: An Open Letter to Objectivists and Libertarians.” This latter essay remained unpublished until 2003, when it was published for the first time by The Last Ditch, Nicholas Strakon, editor. Before then copies were privately circulated, according to Childs, “in the thousands.”

In presenting his case, Hornberger refers to none of those works, except for a passage in Power and Market. It is unclear, therefore, just where he gets his idea of what a free-market anarchist society might look like or how it might function. And some of the arguments he says anarchists use are arguments that I myself, a free-market anarchist since 1971, do not remember ever encountering. Because he does not footnote his series of essays, I cannot argue that he has misunderstood any other author or incorrectly presented his views. I shall therefore be taking him at his word and replying to him as best I can.

My purpose in part I is to reply to the points Hornberger raises. I will undertake to clarify the free-market anarchist position where I think it has become misunderstood, and to defend it from objections that, in many cases, “prove too much.” His series will serve as a point of departure for addressing those issues.

December 3, 2016


Chapter One:
The Sirens’ Song —
Why We Cannot Let This Matter Rest


© 2016 Ronald N. Neff. All rights reserved.
Published in 2016 at The Last Ditch by Croatoan Books, a division of WTM Enterprises.

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