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An introduction to minarchism

Minarchism, sometimes known as “minimal statism”, is a governmental framework that aims to keep government as small as possible and places an emphasis on constrained government power, minimal spending and minimal levels of intervention. Minarchism is in keeping with liberal tradition and has won particular favour amongst libertarians.

Minarchism originally stemmed from the anarchist movement, and was borne out of many anarchists’ disillusionment with the ideology. Minarchism was created as a result of the realisation that the state is a “necessary evil” if individual liberties are to be protected and maximised, and the term “minarchism” was coined by the famous anarchist Samuel Edward Konkin III.

Such a framework was created, modified and extended by many authors, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s; however, it was following the work of political philosopher Robert Nozick that minarchism received popular and widespread support. In his seminal 1974 work Anarchy, State and Utopia, Nozick discussed anarchism and its viability, concluding that it was impossible for a strictly anarchist society to flourish since it offered no protections against violations of liberty — theft, murder, invasion by a foreign power etc. What was both needed and justified, concluded Nozick, was a minarchist or “nightwatchman state”, having just enough power to prevent the violation of individual rights. Nozick went on to state that minarchism was the ultimate natural government; he claimed that a system of anarcho-capitalism would inevitably develop into a minarchist system, and so — given a tabula rasa — minarchism is not only needed and justified but in fact inevitable.

The essential ideological underpinnings of minarchism, then, stem from a belief that — whilst the state is indeed evil — a state can be created that is limited enough in scope to be justifiable but powerful enough to protect the liberty of its citizens. As Nozick states:

Anarchy, State and Utopia

Our main conclusions about the state are that a minimal state, limited to the narrow functions of protection against force, theft, fraud, enforcement of contracts, and so on, is justified; that any more extensive state will violate persons’ rights not to be forced to do certain things, and is unjustified; and that the minimal state is inspiring as well as right. Two noteworthy implications are that the state may not use its coercive apparatus for the purpose of getting some citizens to aid others, or in order to prohibit activities to people for their own good or protection. — Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia

We can see the impact that minarchism would have on policy if we remove Nozick’s description from the abstract and apply the minarchist ideal to the “real world”. Like most liberal and libertarian ideology, minarchism places a strong emphasis on the maximising of individual liberty, and such an idea forms the basis of minarchist thought on what government’s roles and responsibilities should be. Most minarchists believe that all but the most minimal of taxation should be considered unjustified for example; there would likely be no government welfare; drugs, prostitution and gambling would not be criminalised; the government would likely not have a role in elements of society such as education, road-building, telecomunnications or many other areas that modern states typically control. Whilst many minarchists’ ideas of specifically how a minarchist government would go about its policy, there is strong argeement over the basis of that policy.

Minarchism’s ultimate ends are, as we can see, in keeping with the political, social and economic ideals of most libertarians, and as a result minarchism tends to be classified as a libertarian ideology. However, that is not to say that it has found universal support even amongst that particular ideology. Many “hard core” libertarians, for example — believing that any form of taxation is theft — see the fact that a minarchist government must still tax its citizens as an act of coercion, meaning minarchism can never be justified. However, many minarchists respond to such criticism with the idea that the government could be run with the proceeds of private donations, although it is difficult to say whether this would be possible.

Whether or not minarchism is a viable ideology in practice remains to be seen; after all, no state has attempted to make reforms to anywhere near a minarchist level. To do so would require a catalyst of quite literally revolutionary proportions — something akin to the U.S. War of Independence or the Spanish Civil War. Since such events happen infrequently as it is — and are even less frequently spearheaded by groups with minarchist sympathies — the chances of seeing a government founded on minarchist principles are slim at best. Many use this fact to discredit minarchism, rejecting it out of hand as unrealistic and unworkable; these critics include libertarian Murray Rothbard, who decried Nozick’s idea of an “immaculate conception” of a minarchist state, claiming that such an idea was preposterous and that no state has ever been created in this way.

Despite these criticisms, minarchism still enjoys considerable support and remains a hotly debated topic even now, nearly 40 years after it was first defined.

9 Responses

  1. […] to a broader swath of the American public, because you don’t have to be an agorist  or minarchist in order to grasp the violative nature of a TSA agent groping an elderly woman who simply wants to […]

  2. Keith

    “Minarchism, sometimes known as “minimal statism”, is a governmental framework that aims to keep government as small as possible and places an emphasis on constrained government power, minimal spending and minimal levels of intervention. Minarchism is in keeping with liberal tradition and has won particular favour amongst libertarians.”

    I stopped reading after these first two sentences because the first one is entirely and grossly contradicted by the second.

  3. Facebook Governance
    An acceptable governance model is slowly developing these days in the form of Facebook, Google+, and other polite and sensible social-media-website oligarchies. You must sign in to participate, abide by the rules, which are mostly commonsense if not overly simplified and follow the be-good-or-be-banished rule (read the legalese if in doubt). Bad folks don’t last long on Facebook; they wind up on My Space.

    Facing ostraciziation (from Gr. exostrakízo̱)or public banishment in our social milieu is a worst possible fate. The ancient Greeks used ostraka, which were shells or bits of pottery shards upon which they wrote the name of the offender; at the trial a count of too many ostrako spelled doom for the accused.

  4. To protect individuals rights, surely all that is needed, is a body to do just that – not government.

  5. Taran Alexander

    This would be a perfect governmental structure is applied properly. The state IS necessary to effectively protect the rights of citizens. The state structure leave room for corruption in some form but it’s not inevitable if closely watched by a single elected official.

  6. […] known as objectivism, is characterized by individualism and its defense of limited government (minarchism), a free market, and an unalienable respect for individual […]

  7. […] Socialism? There can be no liberty in India, when the Indian State does not entertain itself with minarchial thoughts. I am not favouring minarchy here, but convincing the hypocritical nature of the Indian State which […]

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