Some time ago I promised a series of posts that would outline my argument “against limited government.” The first of these posts was “More Eggs,” which should be considered to be a kind of extended epigraph. The present post shall serve as a general introduction.
When I said I would provide a series of posts arguing against limited government, I meant exactly what I said and said exactly what I meant. I will not be arguing for anarchism, but rather against the state. I will be arguing for precisely this proposition: Limited government is impracticable.
My arguments are directed, primarily, at Objectivists, though I am sure that Objectivists will not be the only thinkers who will benefit from them. My reasons for focusing my arguments on Objectivists are many, but the one essential reason is this: I believe that a free society must rest on intellectual foundations; I believe that Objectivists are the thinkers best equipped to provide these foundations, and I believe that Objectivists are squandering their efforts in this area.
There is no such thing as an anarchist Objectivist. Indeed, no serious Objectivist is sympathetic to anarchism in the least. Since I will be arguing for radical antistatism, which should be understood for now to be the view that limited government is impracticable, a view which seems to have anarchic implications, I expect to find Objectivists to be an unsympathetic audience. Fortunately, some of some Objectivists’ distaste for radical antistatism is based on basic misunderstandings that are easily cleared up.
Antistatism is not anarchism. Anarchism is the view that a stateless society is either the best model for a good society, or else the only model for a good society. Capitalism, the Objectivist view, is that a society regulated by a state that enforces the principle of individual rights is the either the best model for a good society or else the only model for a good society. Antistatism, broadly, is the view that, whatever purpose one intends the state to serve in society, it will not conform to those intentions. More narrowly, it is the view that limited government will not, in practice, achieve the purpose of enforcing and protecting individual rights.
It must be understood that even if it is proven that no possible state can serve the purpose of enforcing the principle of individual rights, this does not prove that any particular form of stateless society can. Antistatism and anarchism are logically distinct, no matter how radical the form of antistatism. Because anarchism and antistatism are logically distinct, I do not have to show that an anarchist society is practicable or that an anarchist society can enforce the principle of individual rights in order to show that limited government can not. (This should be obvious and uncontroversial, and hopefully it is.)
Antistatism is not nihilism. Recently, I have been listening to Leonard Peikoff’s generally excellent and always engaging lectures on the DIM Hypothesis. In these lectures, Dr. Peikoff makes it very clear that he considers anarchism to be a species of nihilism. I may have more to say about Peikoff’s treatment of anarchism in DIM in a later post, but I bring up the anarchism-nihilism association now in order to make it clear that, first, anarchism is not nihilism, and second, antistatism is not nihilism.
Peikoff bases his charge of nihilism on his notion that anarchists want to smash the state — which, in the Objectivist view, is the very institution that makes social life possible — and replace it with nothing. This is true of some anarchists, and Peikoff could be understood to have been arguing that this nihilistic kind of anarchism is the one kind that has had some cultural influence, but individualist anarchists are of a different kind entirely. Individualist anarchists believe that some sort of technology (and please understand “technology” in its broadest possible sense) is needed to protect individual rights in a society; they want to replace the state not with nothing, but with an alternative technology. Free-market anarchists are a species of individualist anarchist who believe that the free-market itself is the technology that can replace the rights-protecting functions of the state. Since individualist anarchists want to replace the state with an alternative technology, individualist anarchists are not nihilists, and anarchism is not nihilism.
Antistatism itself has nothing to say about what could or should replace the state. Having nothing to say about what should replace the state is not the same thing at all as saying that nothing should replace the state. It follows that antistatism is not a kind of nihilism, even though some radical antistatists might personally be nihilists. In other words, antistatism is not nihilism and it does not imply nihilism either.
Now that some elementary confusions are out of the way, let us begin to consider why one ought to be a radical antistatist.
Limited Government Is Impracticable
The Objectivist argument for limited government is by far the best in existence. Ayn Rand’s deeply rooted and comprehensive argument obliterated any need to consider versions of limited government other than her own. When I say that limited government is impracticable, I mean Ayn Rand’s idea of limited government, an Objectivist’s “proper government.” Ayn Rand characterized proper government this way:
A government is the means of placing the retaliatory use of physical force under objective control—i.e., under objectively defined laws.
The fundamental difference between private action and governmental action—a difference thoroughly ignored and evaded today—lies in the fact that a government holds a monopoly on the legal use of physical force. It has to hold such a monopoly, since it is the agent of restraining and combating the use of force; and for that very same reason, its actions have to be rigidly defined, delimited and circumscribed; no touch of whim or caprice should be permitted in its performance; it should be an impersonal robot, with the laws as its only motive power. If a society is to be free, its government has to be controlled.
Under a proper social system, a private individual is legally free to take any action he pleases (so long as he does not violate the rights of others), while a government official is bound by law in his every official act. A private individual may do anything except that which is legally forbidden; a government official may do nothing except that which is legally permitted. [From Ayn Rand, “The Nature of Government.” Emphases in original.]
For several years, when I was a student of Objectivism, I was satisfied with this characterization of limited government. It was obvious to me that there was a great deal of work to be done before a government such as this could be implemented, but the goal, at least, was clear. I believe I read Roy Childs’ “Open Letter to Rand” at some point during this period, and I rejected his arguments for anarchism. It seemed to me that anarchy was an impossible system, and that chaos would be the result of any attempt to implement it. I had one nagging difficulty with the Objectivist politics, namely that I did not find in Ayn Rand’s writing any satisfactory explanation for how an individual could be compelled to obey any particular government, but I did not consider my difficulty to be important. I expected that further study would eventually reveal the answer.
Further study never did reveal an answer to that question, but it turned out that I would abandon all faith in limited government for an entirely different reason. One day, in 2000, I believe it was, I was reading the news. Something had happened and I could see immediately that it would be used as a pretext for an illegitimate expansion of government power. I realized then, all of a sudden, that there was no reason whatsoever to believe that this pattern, or the larger pattern that it represented, could ever be broken: all governments would always tend toward tyranny. The notion that a government could be meaningfully limited was purely an article of faith, with no evidence to support it, none at all.
The news of the day did not cause this sudden realization on its own. The news, whatever it was, was just a catalyst. Thousands of observations, built up over my entire lifetime, my knowledge of history, my studies of the theories of limited government and individual rights — all of these crystallized in an instant and crowded out any room for faith in “a government of laws and not of men.”
The long chain of reasoning that led me to abandon what had turned out to have been a faith in limited government was inductive in nature. I did not deduce the impossibility of limited government from an idea of rights, or from the principle of the non-initiation of force. I realized that the evidence that a limited government could be established and maintained was non existent. (From there, the leap to anarchism appeared suddenly quite manageable: “When you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”)
The news of 2000 would never have convinced me of antistatism had I not already observed and partially integrated a huge body of pertinent facts. The bulk of the posts in this series will be dedicated to reproducing these integrations, to reproducing the braided evidentiary and inductive chains that bind antistatism to reality. The nature of my enterprise precludes any possibility of quick and neat demonstrations. But quick and neat demonstrations are the province of rationalists anyhow, and would be of little use to my target audience, the worthy but misguided Objectivists who still seek to free man by means of government.