Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Problem of Depravity: Why Human Evil is Not a Case for Minarchism

Anand, the proprietor of this blog, is on a hiatus from writing. In his absence, he has agreed to allow me, Jeff Godley, to continue writing content of my own. 

In one sense, the gap between libertarian minarchism and libertarian anarchism is negligible: both groups generally agree on major policy issues, such as ending the wars, ending the Fed, stopping the drug war, and getting the government out of education and healthcare.

Yet the way the two groups communicate, in another sense they are very far apart, indeed.

I don't intend this to be yet another "anarchists are right, minarchists are wrong" post. Time enough for that later. My goal here is to help the two camps debate in good faith, and to ensure both groups are making the strongest case possible for their positions. If our goal is the pursuit of truth, neither anarchist nor minarchist will be well served by endlessly repeating bad arguments.

To that end, I want to take a look at a common minarchist objection to an anarchist society: the problem of depravity. It usually takes this form:
Anarchism may work in theory, but it is not for the real world; men are not angels. Some form of government is necessary to maintain order among people, stop invading armies, and apprehend violent criminals. Government is a necessary evil. 
The problem with this argument is not it's inaccurate portrayal of humankind - no anarchist, after all, denies that men are not angels - but rather that its application is completely arbitrary. It takes a true statement ("men are not angels") and uses it to object to anarchism while ignoring the fact that the same argument is just as true of their own position.

When an anarchist challenges the minarchist, arguing that the "men are not angels" standard applies to those who are in government, the minarchist typically replies along these lines:
That is why the citizens must exercise eternal vigilance over the government; that is why we need to elect good leaders; that is why we have checks and balances; that is why we have need to follow the Constitution. 
Perhaps that is true; but the minarchist is arbitrarily choosing not to apply the "men are not angels" standard here. "Men are not angels" is supposedly anarchism's kryptonite - but only because minarchists fail to apply the standard consistently to their own position. If these sinful men are not be fit to govern themselves, how is it that they are fit to keep watch over government, judge who is a "good" leader, institute and uphold checks and balances and write and enforce constitutions?

If we accept the minarchist standard as applied to anarchism, we have to say that - since there is no ultimate guarantee that men can or will exercise any of these duties faithfully - men are just as unfit to be part of a minarchist order as they are to be part of an anarchist one.

The point is this: human depravity is a problem for every legal system. Every time Person A devises a system of legal order, whether it is centralized or polycentric, forced or voluntary, Person B can (quite correctly), raise the objection "how do we know that the people providing the order will do so properly?!?" So Person A devises a mechanism by which the legal consumers can ensure the best quality from the legal producers. Then Person B can object, "how do we know that the people responsible for this mechanism will do so properly?!?" So then Person A......

This kind of reductio ad infinitum is possible no matter what legal system one argues. Pointing it out is not a good argument, since it applies equally well to both sides of the debate. As long as the human will is involved in your legal system, there is the strong possibility it will fail, and fail miserably. There exist no iron-clad guarantees of perfection in any legal system. The point is not "men are not angels; therefore minarchism." Neither is the point "men are not angels; therefore anarchism." Rather, men are not angels; therefore... nothing at all.

Anarchists and minarchists need not always agree, and debate between the two camps helps clarify what we believe about government - a necessary and inevitable evil? a boon to humanity? or a destructive parasite with no justification? This is a valid question and one worth debating.

But in this debate not all arguments are created equal. Minarchists do not help their case by applying an arbitrary standard of human depravity. They should take care, lest they fall into their own trap.

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