A Little Bit Pregnant?
STR Column by Jim Davies, published on December 29, 2004
The broad freedom movement in America today is united in believing that government is massively too big, too expensive, too intrusive and too dangerous; but otherwise holds quite a spectrum of opinions about why, how much, and what's to be done about it. At one end of it are people like me, who perceive that government in its essential nature is unalterably opposed to human beings in our essential nature, and that the discord it delivers is no surprise at all; to cure the problems, every last shred of it has to go. But we are probably a minority--so far. Most seem to think it's possible in this respect to be partially pregnant, as it were; that a little bit of government is desirable so long as its size is limited in some way.
Nobody put that view better than Alan Burris, in his timeless A Liberty Primer. Without committing himself to such minarchism, he explains that if our objective is to minimize the total of initiated force in society, as government reduces towards a vanishing point, there may be private criminals who will take its place; it is impossible to achieve zero aggression, so we have to settle for a very small government, capable only of suppressing such rivals.
Among the minarchists, we can detect two main subgroups: free-marketeers and Constitutionalists. The former have produced a wonderful array of priceless literature, especially on economics, while the latter have set unmatched examples of raw courage in facing down the leviathan, trying to rely on what is supposed to be the law of the land - holding government to its own professed standard. Success has been mixed, by both groups; the former has influenced the intellectual climate, but it's hard to measure by how much, while the latter has splendidly monkeywrenched the apparatus of government, but alas, has been fighting a rearguard action. I still have high hopes, though, for the "income tax" rebellion.
From an anarchist foundational base, the Libertarian Party has for three decades tried to draw all these disparate groups into political action, and as a long-time LP member, I have taken part and applauded the effort. However, at present, I see no other verdict but "Failure." The main measure of success the LP has chosen (Presidential vote totals) shows no growth at all. In fact, the high point came in 1980; Ed Clarke won nearly a million votes. Extraordinarily fine candidates ever since have never topped half a million. Politics simply doesn't work, even when basic principles are quite seriously compromised in desperate searches for votes.
I think most LPers know that now, and am sad to see many signs that the fine foundation Murray Rothbard put in place is now being blamed for the result; if the Party does abandon its theoretical roots, it will certainly dissolve into insignificance. Rothbard, in fact, may serve as a good example for us now, on the eve of 2005. He managed to hold two ideals together in his mind: a rigid intellectual commitment to zero-government theory, but also a practical strategy of working with any and all who shared any common ground, for as long as he could. He courted the anti-War Left, back in the 1970s, as well as the Old Right Conservatives towards his life's end. Today's LP, with all its failure, is in a way his legacy; I fear he attempted the impossible. So I don't mean that we should emulate his example now, but that we should learn from his example now; i.e., note that however noble and worthwhile his attempt, in the end, it didn't work. It is simply not possible to be a little bit pregnant. One must be for government, or one must be against it; one thing or the other. The choice is binary.
So I'd like to lay down a bit of a challenge, to all three groups. To economic free-market minarchists, I'd like to see a persuasive account of why, precisely, any degree of government whatsoever is needed in a free society; exactly what function could it alone perform, that could not be performed better, cheaper or both by unfettered capitalist enterprise. To our brave Constitutionalist friends, I'd like to see an equally persuasive proof that what has been tried for two centuries and manifestly failed, would not fail again if somehow the same limits were put back in place. From both, I want to understand how it can be logically possible to "limit" government, when government is by definition that which rules without limits, and when a finite human population would render impossible an infinite regression of overseers. And from myself and my anarchist friends, I challenge us to produce a comprehensive, logical proof that human nature demands nothing less than a complete elimination of government. When that sequence of reasoning is laid out and understood and presented in a way that John and Jane Q can readily understand it, nothing will be able to stop us, and the ancient myth of the necessity of government will be finally tossed into history's ashcan.