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Charles Johnson on the Childs challenge to minarchism. From “Liberty, Equality, Solidarity: Toward a Dialectical Anarchism” in Anarchism/Minarchism: Is a Government Part of a Free Country? (Ashgate, 2008)

In comments on a recent blog post, Adam Victor Reed claimed that Charles Johnson’s arguments frequently – the most egregious example being his argument against a property right in improved land – appeal to a supposed lack of any possibility of objective criteria for rights. When Johnson asked Reed for citations to substantiate this interpretation of his views, Reed cited a passage from Johnson’s 2008 essay, Liberty, Equality, Solidarity: Toward a Dialectical Anarchism, which is printed in the anthology Anarchism/Minarchism: Is a Government Part of a Free Country? (Ashgate Press, 2008). In order to allow people who don’t own the book to better understand the debate, and to be able to see the passage that’s at issue between Reed and Johnson, we have placed the paragraph that Reed indicated online, under principles of fair use:

I claim that minarchists cannot consistently offer the kind of theory that they need to offer, because no possible theory can connect sovereign authority to legitimacy, without breaking the connection between legal right and individual liberty. My case for this claim consists of three challenges, each developed in the anarchist literature, which demonstrate a conflict between individual liberty and one of the forms of special authority that minarchists have traditionally wanted governments to exercise.[12] Since the clearest expression of the first, and most basic, challenge is in Roy Childs’s Open Letter to Ayn Rand, we might call it the Childs challenge. Rand argues that a government must be strictly limited to the defensive use of force in order to be morally distinguishable from a robber gang.[13] She holds that even the legitimate functions of a properly limited government must be funded voluntarily by the governed, condemning taxation in any form.[14] However, she insists on the legitimacy of sovereignty and explicitly rejects individualist anarchism.[15] Childs, accepting Rand’s description of government as an institution that holds the exclusive power to enforce certain rules of social conduct in a given geographical area,[16] argues that no institution can claim that authority and remain limited to the defensive use of force at the same time:

Suppose that I were distraught with the service of a government in an Objectivist society. Suppose that I judged, being as rational as I possibly could, that I could secure the protection of my contracts and the retrieval of stolen goods at a cheaper price and with more efficiency. Suppose I either decide to set up an institution to attain these ends, or patronize one which a friend or business colleague has established. Now, if he [sic] succeeds in setting up the agency, which provides all the services of the Objectivist government, and restricts his more efficient activities to the use of retaliation against aggressors, there are only two alternatives as far as the government is concerned: (a) It can use force or the threat of it against the new institution, in order to keep its monopoly status in the given territory, thus initiating the use or threat of physical force against one who has not himself initiated force. Obviously, then, if it should choose this alternative, it would have initiated force. Q.E.D. Or: (b) It can refrain from initiating force, and allow the new institution to carry on its activities without interference. If it did this, then the Objectivist government would become a truly marketplace institution, and not a government at all. There would be competing agencies of protection, defense and retaliation–in short, free market anarchism. (Childs 1969, ¶ 8)

Rand’s theory of limited government posits an institution with sovereign authority over the use of force, but her theory of individual rights only allows for the use of force in defense against invasions of rights. As long as private defense agencies limit themselves to the defense of their clients’ rights, Rand cannot justify using force to suppress them. But if citizens are free to cut their ties to the government and turn to private agencies for the protection of their rights, then the so-called government no longer holds sovereign authority to enforce its citizens’ rights; it becomes only one defense agency among many.[17] Childs formulated his argument as an internal critique of Ayn Rand’s political theory, but his dilemma challenges any theory combining libertarian rights with government sovereignty. Any limited government must either be ready to forcibly suppress private defense agencies–in which case it ceases to be limited, by initiating violence against peaceful people–or else it must be ready to coexist with them–abdicating its claim to sovereignty and ceasing to be a government. Since maintaining sovereignty requires an act of aggression, any government, in order to remain a government, mut be ready to trample the liberty of its citizens, in order to establish and enforce a coercive monopoly over the protection of rights.[18]

12 Taken severally, each challenge poses a problem for one of the forms of special authority that minarchists have traditionally wanted governments to exercise. I think the import of each individual challenge is actually less than anarchists have historically thought: minarchists could respond to any individual challenge by revising their theory, and promoting an even more minimalist government that abdicates the function that each challenge called into question. But taken together, the three challenges jointly whittle a properly limited government down to no government at all: any institution that minarchists could make consistent with liberty, in light of all three challenges, would have abandoned all claims of sovereign authority, and thus abdicated the throne.

13 See, for example, The Nature of Government in Rand 1964, 113.

14 See Government Financing in a Free Society in Rand 1964, 116–20.

15 The Nature of Government, in Rand 1964, 112–13.

16 Ibid., 107; emphasis on exclusive added.

17 It could go on calling itself a government, of course–just as Emperor Norton went on calling himself Emperor of North America even though he had no subjects except those who voluntarily played along with his game. But it would no longer be a government in any sense that’s incompatible with individualist anarchism. (Specifically, whatever it fancied itself, it would no longer be claiming the sovereign authority of the State; see the section on Equality below.)

18 Classical liberals and minarchist libertarians have sometimes tried to sidestep anarchist objections by appealing to the consent of the governed. Even if government sovereignty entails limitations on private citizens’ freedom to defend themselves directly, not all limitations on liberty violate libertarian principles: free people can bind themselves to new obligations by agreeing to contracts. Liberal theorists draw up the analogy of a social contract, and claim that private citizens can be bound to recognise the government’s sovereignty by explicit, or tacit, or hypothetical consent to the terms of the political system. This sort of reply could be made to any of the three challenges that I pose, and so deserves a response. Unfortunately, constraints of space prevent me from giving an adequate response. Fortunately, excellent systematic critiques of the claim already exist in Spooner 1867–1870 and the first chapter of Barnett 2004. In any case minarchists should be very hesitant to draw on appeals to tacit consent: exactly the same arguments could just as easily be used to justify all forms of taxation (on the theory that citizens consented to pay for government expenses when they consented to the contract), many forms of invasive laws (on the theory that citizens consented to abide by the government’s standards of conduct or hygiene), etc. Most serious defenders of minarchism in the twentieth century have seen this difficulty and have tried to develop theories which provide for the legitimacy of government without the need for unanimous consent, whether tacit or explicit.


–Charles Johnson (2008), Liberty, Equality, Solidarity: Toward a Dialectical Anarchism, in Long and Machan (eds.) Anarchism/Minarchism: Is a Government Part of a Free Country. Burlington, VT: Ashgate. 160–161.

One Response to “Charles Johnson on the Childs challenge to minarchism. From “Liberty, Equality, Solidarity: Toward a Dialectical Anarchism” in Anarchism/Minarchism: Is a Government Part of a Free Country? (Ashgate, 2008)”

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