The Grand Contradiction

Why Libertarianism Cannot Last.


Can a government be too free? The Sicilian Mafia arose to fill the power vacuum left by a weak central government.

Liberalism is one of the oldest modern political philosophies, and is still incredibly influential today. It seeks, as its name might suggest, to provide a set of key freedoms to all those governed. These freedoms include those of conscience, speech, association, movement, opinion, and the press.

Those rights mentioned above are considered by liberals to be basic. Basic rights are fundamental—meaning that they should not be impinged upon for the sake of any other non-basic rights—and inalienable—meaning that they should never be taken away from someone, even if that person gives consent.

Libertarianism takes liberalism and “goes one further,” also considering as basic rights to property and contract (Freeman, 123). It seems like a good deal: libertarianism secures for those governed all the rights associated with classical liberalism—and then some! We’ll find upon further analysis, though, that libertarianism’s addition comes at a cost.

Samuel Freeman argues that prioritization of these rights renders libertarianism illiberal; in other words, rights to property and contract come at the expense of liberalism’s standard library of basic rights. For example, consider that a truly libertarian government would have to respect and enforce someone’s wish, confirmed by contract, to sell himself into slavery (Freeman, 110). The slave’s rights to movement, association, and so on, then, become alienable and therefore not basic.

My argument is broader than Freeman’s. I argue not only that basic rights aren’t preserved under libertarianism, but also that libertarianism itself isn’t preserved. In other words, a libertarian government, because of its prioritization of rights to property and contract, isn’t sustainable, and is liable to change into or be replaced by other governments in the long term. Libertarianism cannot last.

A libertarian government can’t claim the right to rule

Let’s first consider how government itself emerges from a state of nature. As humans accumulate goods, they will eventually desire protection of those goods (and of their persons) and might hire an agency to fulfill this need for protection. As described in Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1), a landmark text on libertarianism, these protection agencies are a precursor to government. As society emerges, several protection agencies—each with its own police force—might arise in concert, each vying for the people’s business. In time, whichever protection agency provides the best protection will rise to dominance. Its competitors go out of business. And this dominant protection agency comes to resemble what we might call government.

Note that this dominant protection agency achieved a monopoly organically. It didn’t use force to marginalize its competitors; it simply provided better services. The dominant protection agency’s monopoly is said to be de facto, and is tolerated under most libertarian philosophies.

What isn’t tolerated, though, is a de jure monopoly (Nozick, 109). A protection agency with a de jure monopoly claims an exclusive legal right to rule, and uses force to prosecute other agencies that seek to rule in its stead. To prosecute competitors is to violate their rights to property, which isn’t allowed in libertarianism. Thus, libertarian philosophers make the normative claim that the monopoly held by the dominant protection agency should be de facto.

Protectors’ monopoly tends towards de jure

The first problem I see with the above normative claim, though, is that the incentive for a de facto monopoly to claim a de jure one seems like it would run too high.

Those who work within the government are employed by it. And employees tend to want to keep their jobs. Once a protection agency achieves dominance, its incentive would be to squash competitors by force, instead of simply trying to keep providing better services, letting the market do the work. We know that powerful companies tend to obtain unfair monopolies unless forced against it by antitrust regulation. But what external regulation could stop a government from achieving an unfair monopoly? The government itself is the highest unit of legislation. It answers to no one.

“A protection agency answers to its constituents!” one might argue. If those people who subscribe to an agency’s services witness the unjust use of force to eliminate competitors, they could simply terminate their subscription in protest. And if enough people did this, the dominant protection agency would cease to be so. Thus falling into a de jure monopoly is punished by its people. To me, though, this “vote with your feet” scenario seems unlikely. Recall that one who ends his subscription to a protection agency’s services is no longer eligible for protection. Thus he risks aggression and violence at the hands of others. This seems like too great a price to pay for sending a political message. Can you imagine unsubscribing from police protection to protest police brutality? It seems unlikely. Thus those who wish to vote with their feet are faced with a collective action problem, and would probably choose that unsubscribing isn’t worth the risk (unless they unsubscribed collectively?).

“A protection agency answers to its judicial branch,” one might also argue. In government in general, one of the primary purposes of a judicial branch is to allow checks and balances, which prevent legislative and administrative branches from abusing their power. A protection agency might arise with a firm set of rules—a constitution, if you will—that absolutely prohibits the use of force to eliminate competitors, and also prohibits the changing of this law, and so on. In this agency, members of government that acted anti-competitively would be ousted and replaced. This protection agency could achieve a de facto monopoly, and also maintain it. I allow that this is a solid argument. However, the notion of a truly incorruptible judicial branch does seem like a bit of a pipe dream, especially considering that this government arose as a primitive protection agency in a state of nature.

The overall likelihood is that a dominant protection agency would succumb to the temptation to use force to keep its monopoly. The people’s rights to property and contract would be violated, and the government would no longer be libertarian.

Allow for now, though, that a government’s judicial branch really does enforce the de-facto-but-not-de-jure requirement. Nozick’s utopian state still has problems.

A de facto monopoly is liable to be replaced by other monopolies, which may not be de facto

It’s all well and good if a protection agency respects and enforces its constituents’ rights to property and contract without fail. But how are we to assume that this protection agency’s competitors will do the same?

Nozick acknowledges that competition by would-be rival agencies is not only allowed, but encouraged (Nozick, 109). What happens when one rival actually succeeds, though, and claims its competitor’s monopoly? How are we to ensure that that agency also maintains a fair, de-facto monopoly? And even if it does maintain an organic monopoly, that agency’s ultimate competitor might not, and so on. Ultimately, a de facto monopoly will be outcompeted by a de jure one, and libertarianism will prove self-effacing.

One might argue that the frequent turnover of dominant protection agencies shouldn’t be taken as such a given. Why couldn’t one de facto monopoly just keep its monopoly forever? Nozick argues that this would likely be the case (109). But how can we be so sure? In fact, I argue that libertarian’s very prioritization of property and contract rights make the rise to power of competitors a near-certainty. The libertarian government, by the very definition of property rights, doesn’t tolerate redistribution. And without redistribution, property is amassed freely, along with the power that comes with it. So it seems like would-be challengers to the current monopoly would be a dime a dozen. Eventually, one challenger would be successful, and eventually, one successful challenger would succumb to the temptations described in Protectors’ monopoly tends towards de jure. Libertarianism proves short-lived.

Note, here, that libertarianism’s own principles usher in its downfall. A libertarian government creates a climate where power can be amassed unchecked. And it operates by a set of rules that prevent that government from stopping competing governing bodies—even when these competitors don’t play by libertarian rules. Libertarianism isn’t just short-lived. Even when executed correctly (with a strong judicial branch), it’s self-effacing.

Agencies beyond those for protection are liable to challenge the government

So far, we’ve only talked about the tendency for rival protection agencies to compete for the monopoly on governance. Theoretically, though, any group could amass property and power, under libertarian laws that allow this, and then use those resources to vie for political dominance. How about a wealthy family of landowners? Landowners held huge power during periods of feudalism in Japan and Europe in the 800’s A.D (Freeman, 141). It’s easy to imagine that a wealthy landowner might hire his own police force, write his own laws, and begin serving as an alternative government.

How about an oil mogul and his entourage? The executive board of an operations or distribution company? A monopoly of tech companies? (These are allowed under libertarianism!)  A worker’s union? (These are allowed too!) How about the church?

It’s certainly within reason that any one of these groups could amass power unchecked under libertarianism, and then use this power to challenge the government. And if these groups win this challenge, it’s unlikely that they will respect rights to property and contract. Thus libertarianism has been brought down by its own principles.

It seems that the only stable liberal government is one that does claim a de jure monopoly on power; one that does claim the right to rule; and one that risks impinging upon its constituents’ property and contract rights in order to maintain this right. There are cases in which one must give up rights in order to preserve more essential, more basic ones. Government seems to be one of these cases. By handing over part of our right to amass property, we gain in exchange a more essential right: the freedom to a firm, lasting government that presides over a stable society. I’d call it a fair trade.


  1. Samuel Freeman: Illiberal Libertarians: Why Libertarianism Is Not a Liberal View
  2. Robert Nozick: Anarchy, State, and Utopia

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