Random Thoughts on the irony of Minarchism

Just how limited should "limited government" be? If you believe certain right wing commentators both on the internet and in the real world, "the state's only legitimate function is the protection of individuals from aggression, theft, breach of contract and fraud.". This quote comes from the introduction to the Wikipedia article on Minarchism, which is probably a better and more descriptive title than "limited government".

Modern day minarchists - virtually all of them from the United States of America - believe that the state's power should be limited to national defence (ie the armed forces), law enforcement (ie the police) and the legal infrastructure to ensure that violations of criminal and civil law are punished (ie courts and prisons).

(EDIT: Please note that I am talking more about populist beliefs of Minarchism that you would find amongst social conservatives in the US Republican Party or in the Tea Party movement.)

In the mind of minarchists, government programs such as health care, education and scientific research should not exist. Responsibility for these areas should be left up to the individual and/or the free market. The argument against such extensions of government involvement in society is that it expands government power, and any expansion of government power is bad because government naturally seeks to oppress. As for the effectiveness of government intervention, many would argue that the government is naturally incompetent and is unable to create any effective intervention at all - thus government programs such as public education are a drain on the economy because any benefit arising from such a program would never be as good as one completely provided by non-government sources (eg private schools, home schooling). Others would argue that even if the benefits of government intervention do outweigh anything individuals and the market can produce, any extension of government power leads to a loss of liberty and must be resisted.

Of course minarchists point towards the "sword" that the state wields as proof of its corruptibility, and this is borne out through historical experience. States have often used the police, the army and the legal system to enforce their sovereignty and law to the detriment of the population it purportedly serves. Failure to pay taxes - including taxes to support public education or health care - along with a failure to submit to laws set down by the state - including laws set up to regulate the behaviour of individuals and of the free market - cannot be maintained by individuals without the state eventually using its power to force people to comply.

Yet the irony of this situation is that minarchists support the very power that the state has that can be used to oppress - the military, the police, the court system and prisons. Moreover the very things that minarchists complain about the government doing - involving itself in education, health care, welfare - exist to benefit society as a whole. So minarchists are fearful that the state will use the "sword" (military, police, legal system, prisons) but want to limit the state merely to sword bearing activities. It's like saying that you're frightened that your next door neighbour might kill you with that axe he's carrying so you try to limit everything he does but you still allow him to carry an axe.

This, of course, is an anarchist argument - that the state is inherently evil and should be abolished, thus allowing individuals and society to carry on without it. The difference between minarchists and anarchists is that a minarchist wants to the government to stay out of everything except the military, the police, the legal system and prisons while an anarchist wants the government to cease existing altogether. Additionally, anarchists are quick to label the police, the military, the legal system and prisons as being extensions of fascism.

So is it possible for the government to provide any form of positive societal intervention (public education, health care, etc) without having any form of "sword"? Is it possible to have a government that does have a place in society but does not have any power in the form of military, police, law enforcement or prisons? I don't think so; besides, it's never been done.

What I would like to point out is that government often defines itself by the sort of power it wields. If the state has the ability to create a better society by, say, providing free health care, then government would define itself by the good that it does in that area: namely reducing infection rates, preventing the spread of communicable diseases, increasing awareness of public health issues and so on. Similarly if the state has the ability to create a better society through public education then it would define itself by the good that it does via public education, namely improving literacy and numeracy rates, providing young people with opportunities that they would not have had otherwise and providing for scientific and technological endeavour to benefit society. If we think of other areas of government involvement in society - such as the importance of intervening in markets in the form of monetary policy, the space program, the building and maintenance of electricity, water and transport infrastructure, environmental legislation and improvement programs - then we will see that governments will define themselves in those areas.

And by "define itself", I'm talking about the role that government sees itself in having in society. And government here refers both to the employees of the state and the representatives we elect to make laws and decisions for us on our behalf.

But if we limit the government to merely minarchism - military, police, legal system, prison - then we will have a state that is defined only by its ability to enforce punitive punishment. We elect people into office whose job it is to enforce punitive punishment and we allow the government to employ only those people involved directly in or in support of punitive punishment. Thus government would only ever wish to justify itself by its ability to punish.

It's no secret that the United States of America has the smallest government system in the western world,* and this along with the world's largest prison population - in both absolute and per capita rates. By being so limited, America's governments (Federal, State and county) define themselves only by that which they are allowed to do best which, in this case, is to wield the "sword".

Thus the irony is that minarchism actually produces a fear of government while simultaneously allowing the government more power and reason to exercise its ability to punish. By contrast, western democracies that have "mixed" economies (a combination of government intervention and a free market) have larger governments but less desire to enforce punitive punishment. In fact these nations (mainly western European welfare states and social democracies) have smaller armies and smaller prisons.

Which leads me to the following conclusion: Small governments are more likely to oppress, while large(r) governments are less likely to oppress.

(And yes I am well aware of the Soviet Union. Government oppression in Communist states occurs when the state completely dominates and has eliminated any form of market and individual choice. But I am not arguing for communism but for mixed economies where both government and market co-exist happily)

* Government spending as percentage of GDP. Currently 25% in the US but rarely above 20% before the downturn (see historical tables of the FY2009 budget for more detailed figures). Most western nations have government spending beyond 30% of GDP (eg Japan is 39%)

EDIT: Here's a quick and nasty table I set up that highlights the size of respective national governments:

So my statement It's no secret that the United States of America has the smallest government system in the western world is true in the sense of "Western World" being western democracies. Only Mexico could be classed as worse. The nations in blue are nations whose GDP per capita (PPP) is less than 25% of the US.

It needs to be pointed out that the list here only uses data based on national government spending, rather than total government spending (ie spending by state and local governments). Figures for the US do not include this data, while France, Sweden and the United Kingdom are Unitary States, which mean that the figures used here accurately reflect the spending/gdp ratio.

Total government spending in the US is around 10 percentage points above the national level, which means that current total government spending represents around 33.5% of US GDP. See here.

A cursory examination of the Gini levels for each of these nations is interesting too:


Rdan said...


I would like to pop this one up and do some eye poking!

Angry Bear

Rdan said...

Oh yes...the US has the smallest government in the western world....please define. Not literally I would hazard.

One Salient Oversight said...

Added "*" above.

Ron Lankshear said...

Interesting that Singapura is at bottom of chart but has highest GDP

One Salient Oversight said...


Yeah it is very interesting. What it shows firstly is that high levels of government spending can't be fully responsible for increased GDP per capita.

But Singapore has a Gini coefficient of 48.1 which means that Singapore's wealth is very much concentrated in rich people.

The Gini coefficient is a hard and fast way to measure how wealth is distributed in a society. A Gini coefficient of 100 implies all wealth owned by one person, whereas a Gini coefficient of 1 implies all wealth owned equally by everyone.

The US has a Gini coefficient of 45. Like Singapore, America's wealth is concentrated amongst the rich.

Western European nations on the list have Gini coefficients in the mid-early 30s, which implies that Europe's wealth is more evenly spread.

Andrew Bissell said...

The prison population in the United States would certainly be much smaller if we were to follow the minarchist prescription to legalize drugs. Given the use of the catch-all New Deal Wickard-v-Fillburn interpretation of the interstate commerce clause to justify the U.S. federal government's ongoing prosecution of the War on Drugs, your argument that our prisons are overflowing because our government is so "limited" is farcical.

Likewise, most minarchists would advocate a dramatically scaled-back size and role for the U.S. military.

It's mostly because the government's sword is being wielded "to regulate the behavior of individuals" and to "improve the society" (including those of certain Middle Eastern countries) that so many people in the U.S. are either in jail or the military. I see no irony here at all.

The minarchist perspective is not that nice things like education, help for the poor, or a supply of widely-accepted money should not exist, but that there is nothing in the nature of government itself (which, whatever other window dressing you wish to give it, is nothing more or less than an institution with a monopoly on the use of physical force) that should lead one to believe that it can do to anything advance these fundamentally cooperative efforts.

One Salient Oversight said...


I think you're advocating a more libertarian viewpoint than a Minarchist one. Though I don't think the two are mutually exclusive.

It is quite possible to have a Minarchist government that is authoritarian. In fact my argument in this posting is that it is a natural result. So it is quite possible for Minarchism to oppose libertarianism.

An example of this would be Britain during the American revolution. There was no doubt that Britain was imposing laws upon the colonies that chaffed Americans. But Great Britain in the 1700s was hardly a "big government" of the sort that Minarchists would oppose.

This is in contrast to the Liberalism exercised in Western Europe, where governments are less authoritative over personal issues (eg drugs and sex) but which also have a welfare state and the "big government" that it naturally brings.

Russell said...

33.5% is still a severely low number for the U.S.

The problem is the figure is arrived at from direct spending only. When you add in all mandates as taxation - such as air bags on cars, child seats, etc. you get a figure over 50%.

For example, is the insurance mandate of Obamacare a tax or not? If you count government-forced spending, the number increases quite a bit. The amount of government spending to enforce the rules is miniscule compared to the amount of non-government spending to comply with the government's rules. At least businesses can count such spending as the cost of doing business and the lowered profit lowers the business taxation. The same is not true for individuals and households.

But Great Britain in the 1700s was hardly a "big government" of the sort that Minarchists would oppose.


Bret said...

Anarcho-Capitalism FTW!

Eclipse Now said...

Nice article.
Woah there Bret... what exactly

1. I'd just like to highlight that it was the publicly funded DARPA that conceived the very basic first forms of the internet.

Then of course governments kick started the basic infrastructure for the internet, which got the ball rolling and then the marketplace saw that it was beyond a certain tipping point, worthy of investment, and the whole venture snowballed.

In other words, the fact that Minarchists can disagree with you as they read your blog is down to the government.

2. Limiting government to the 'sword' might actually increase the need for it!

If the government doesn't provide quality education, health care, and an adequate pension safety net and public housing, then thsoe who 'miss out' for whatever reason can become increasingly desperate.

There would be increase in ignorance, poverty, lack of productivity due to compromised or poor health, and people experiencing a growing lack of opportunity in society all of which can lead to desparate acts from otherwise nice people.